There’s a new Blue Light emergency phone on campus, and it’s in your pocket.
The Statement is The Michigan Daily’s weekly news magazine, distributed every Wednesday during the academic year.
Two University students have created a mobile app that allows students to stay safe while they travel alone around campus. The app, Companion, tracks the user in real time, estimating the period of travel needed to get to their destination and checking up on them if they fail to make it there.
Informatics senior Nathan Pilcowitz and Business senior Danny Freed worked alongside a team to develop the app. The idea for Companion came to them while they were both working in Chicago over the summer and looking for an app that would really have an impact on campus.
“On college campuses — because it’s a smaller area — you walk everywhere for the most part,” Freed said. “It’s become a bigger societal issue with (the prevalence of) sexual assault violence on campus.”
Companion has some features akin to apps like Google Maps and Snapchat. The screen shows a map of the user’s location, indicated by a blue dot. The user can press a point on the map or type in the address to create their route.
Next, from their contacts, the user adds a “companion,” who receives notifications via text message regardless of whether they have a phone with the app. The companions are automatically prompted to check in with their friend if the user doesn’t reach their destination by the predicted arrival time.
As the user walks, the screen functions as a security interface — if he or she feels unsafe, the app can be used to “ping” friends or even call 911.
Freed said the main purpose of the app is to make people feel protected with help only a touch away.
“(An assault) might not happen 99 out of 100 times, but the fact of the matter is you provide peace of mind,” Freed said, of what the app provides its users.
The seniors are working on updating the app to be able to interface with the University Police Department. The goal is to integrate predictive patrolling, which would allow police officers to watch areas where most students are walking alone.
“The more people using it, the better the monitoring system will get, the more data there is to keep them safer,” Freed said.
Prior to downloading Companion, LSA senior Hailey Lefkofsky walked home from the library at night with her iPhone glued to her ear and carrying pepper spray as a precaution. But she said she never had a consistent and reliable safety system.
“I usually called a friend, but a lot of times needed to call a few different people until someone was free to stay on the phone,” Lefkofsky said. “Otherwise I’d arrange to text someone when I got back but often times I’d forget and they didn’t hear from me.”
Stressed from crime reports of students being assaulted in recent years, Lefkofsky said the app’s instant response features came as a relief.
“The campus alerts that we get, a lot of times you get that the next day, but if I was walking down that same street where there was an attack at 1:00 a.m. that’s something I kind of want to know more immediately,” Lefkofsky said. “I like that (Companion) is really instantaneous and you can ping a friend or you can just call the police directly.”
“This makes me feel 100 times safer and I didn’t really have an alternative,” she added.
Lefkofsky said she has tried University-sponsored safety measures — like SafeRide and the Blue Light Emergency Phones — to help her get places at night, but found them difficult to use.
“I remember hearing (about SafeRide) at freshman orientation and thinking that was awesome, and then going to use and it and being told I had an hour long wait,” she said. “Or you could only use it twice a semester. I don’t think its really helping the problem.”
Public Policy senior Max Kepes uses the app on weeknights when he stays too late on campus working. He likes the app for its simplicity.
“This (app’s) much more efficient than having to stay on the phone with someone (and make) small talk for 15 minutes,” Kepes said. “You are able to walk home and alert your friends. It’s nice for (my girlfriend) to share her location when she’s walking home and for me to share mine just to make sure the other person’s home safely.”
Given the app’s ability to track an individual’s location, concerns have been raised over personal privacy. But the founders said the visibility of the user’s location and user information all depends on what the user chooses to share.
“They chose who is going to be their companion,” Pilcowitz said. “…And the police, they only would see points of data, they can’t tell who you are until you say you are in trouble.”
The app also does not automatically select the same companion each trip, allowing for the user to change who they want to keep an eye on them, depending on where they are going.
While Kepes said he doesn’t feel unsafe on campus, he still likes to use the app as a precaution.
“If there is something that happens, it has the ability to notify someone quickly, and I think that is very comforting, despite already feeling safe on campus,” Kepes said.
Kepes is also looking forward to the app’s upcoming predictive patrolling feature.
“I think (UMPD) do a great job but there’s always room for improvement,” Kepes said. “Instead of having a safety officer on State Street, say there’s a concentration (of students feeling unsafe) near Hill Street or near (Shapiro Library) on South U, it would be a little more efficient.”
When the weather is cold it becomes harder for students to speak on the phone, so being able to have the app active in your coat pocket is an added plus, Kepes noted.
“I leave the library, I put in my location and put it in my pocket, get home and turn it off,” Kepes said. “It’s so simple and it doesn’t take any extra time to make sure you’re safe. The benefits are really worth it.”
Companion is free in Apple’s App Store and is currently being developed for Android devices.