When I used to work late in downtown San Francisco and walk home through a sketchy part of SOMA, I would call a friend to virtually walk home with me. Once, the plan backfired: While I was distracted on my phone, a mugger grabbed my bag and ran off.
A team of college students has a better idea–an app that connects you with a friend through the click of a button, and then sends an alert if anything goes awry as they follow your route home.
Though the app can be used anywhere, the students first started working on the app to help increase safety on college campuses. “You hear such crazy stories all the time,” says Lexie Ernst, one of the developers. “At the University of Michigan, we get emails with crime alerts–we were always aware if there was an assault or a robbery. Even though it’s good to know what’s going on around you, it was pretty scary, especially being a college girl, walking home from the library or class late at night.”
Though there are other personal safety apps out there, the students thought they could do better. “Our feeling was that no one was using them just because they weren’t peer to peer, they weren’t interactive, and they didn’t provide the peace of mind that people needed to feel safe,” Ernst says.
The students’ Companion app, which recently came out in a new version, is simple to use. You type in the address you’re headed to, pull down a map, and then pick a friend or two from your list of contacts. They don’t have to have the app to help; a text message with a link to a map will pop up on their phone.
“If the user goes off route, or doesn’t make it to the destination on time, or if they fall, or are pushed, or are running, or even if their headphones are pulled out of their phone, all of their emergency contacts are notified,” says Ernst. “It’s a good way to keep in touch with the people around you and stay safe. And give you peace of mind.”
If something seems to go wrong, the user has 15 seconds to push a button to say they’re ok. If not, their phone automatically turns into an alarm to try to scare the attacker, and gives the option to call the police. The contact watching the map will also have the option to call 911.
Ernst says she uses it every day–including when she drives home to visit her parents and forgets to text them that she’s safely arrived back at school. Now they get an automatic text. The developers have also seen others use the app in unexpected ways.
“We’ve been exposed to a number of different use cases that never even dawned on us,” she says. “We’ve seen parents and their school age children walking to the bus early in the morning while their parents are at work. We’ve seen people use it with their elderly grandparents who are going to the grocery store.”
They also realized that app could help campuses–or communities at large–identify and start to fix unsafe areas. Users can hit a button whenever they’re feeling uncomfortable, and that data goes back to the developers.
“After a few weeks, we realized we were accumulating all of this data,” Ernst says. “That data is very valuable–I actually think it’s the most valuable part of our app. We’ve identified thousands of areas of concern in different communities around the world. In the future we’re going to be able to figure out why–does it need more lighting, is there something sketchy going on on the street? We’re just hoping to make campuses, and communities at large, safer.”