MU students create app to improve campus, city safety

Thursday, August 29, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:38 a.m. CDT, Friday, August 30, 2013
A new smartphone application developed by MU students offers an easy way to alert emergency officials in dangerous situations. The app, called SafeTrek, is still in the works but will be available to citizens for free upon its release.

COLUMBIA — After winning the Reynolds Journalism Institute's smartphone app contest last spring, the two Zachs now want more than a pat on the back for their personal safety app, SafeTrek.

"As far as we can take it, we will," Zach Beattie said about the plans he and his partner Zach Winkler share. "If it works (in Columbia), we'll move to other cities."

The app, which is making its way through the legal department of the Columbia Police Department and not yet available to the public, is designed to help users who feel unsafe but aren't quite ready to call the police.

It works like a 911 hand grenade: When the user feels uncomfortable, he or she removes "the pin" — that is, the user opens the app and places a finger on the screen. When the danger is gone, the user lifts that finger off the screen and enters a four-digit code — restoring the pin, figuratively speaking.

If the situation becomes threatening, the user removes his or her finger. If the code is not entered in 10 seconds, the police call the user's phone. Boom goes the grenade.

While SafeTrek is not the only app of its kind on the market, Winkler is convinced the  app's simplicity sets it apart, as does the risk-free reassurance. 

"The real goal is to eliminate that feeling of being unsafe," Winkler said. "Maybe you're being followed or maybe scared; it can give you a little bit of comfort, holding down that button and knowing that you're doing something proactive to protect yourself."

Blue light blahs

For students at MU, the campus blue light system is designed to remove that unease. Like a phone booth without the booth, each has a phone and distinctive blue bulb and is within view of another blue light. The idea is that students who feel uneasy can move from light to light until they arrive at a safe place, calling the police if necessary.

But Beattie and Winkler, together with then-partner Natalie Cheng, felt the blue lights were more confusing than illuminating.

According to a 2010 Maneater article, the blue light system had resulted in more than 1,600 calls from 2005 to the article's publication three years ago. Only three of those incidents required police to file a report.

The trio began by conducting studies, asking students how they felt about the lights. "When we did these surveys, we started to discover students don't know how to use (the blue lights)," Beattie said. "There's a lot of confusion around them. ... That's kind of where the problem originated, and we started to develop SafeTrek."

Research in hand, Beattie, Winkler and Cheng approached MU Police Chief Jack Watring, but he couldn't really picture how the app would work and what kind of burden it would place on his small staff.  He pointed the pair toward the Columbia Police Department. The three also approached Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton and then spoke to interim Emergency Management Director Scott Olsen, who is also chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District. 

After good meetings with both men, the trio met with Brian Maydwell, a systems support analyst for the Public Safety Joint Communications Center.

Maydwell said those early meetings helped to shape the app into a tool dispatchers could use.

The group "worked with us quite a bit when they were doing their development," said Maydwell, whose department controls dispatchers in Columbia. "We were helping along with what actually works in this industry."

Maydwell said the app also includes safeguards against accidental calls. "Any phone can pocket dial, but their app requires a multiple-step process, and that prevents pocket dials," he said.

The price of peace of mind

With the contest over, research and development done and the summer underway, Cheng left the group.

"There was an internal conversation about everyone's workload within the group," Cheng said. "We weren't able to solve it, so I exited the team."

Beattie and Winkler brought on classmates Nick Droege and Aaron Kunnemann as chief operating officer and chief administrative officer, respectively.  The app was then submitted to the legal department of the Columbia Police Department.

"It's been a back-and-forth conversation," Droege said. "We want to make sure the app is a product that is useable and helpful and something that (the department) wants."

While the immediate application for SafeTrek addresses the peace of mind Winkler sees as a selling point, Beattie thinks the information that can be gleaned from using the app is another asset.

"The most valuable part to police departments — beyond additional safety to citizens — is the information behind the app," he said. "Every time someone uses it, we log where they were traveling, where they feel unsafe. When lots of people use it, it almost creates a heat map."

That has the potential to give police more data about trouble spots on campus, and Beattie and his partners find that exciting.

But Columbia Police crime analyst Jerry East doesn't think it will change the way the police patrol Columbia.

"I appreciate what the app's trying to do. If somebody's attacking you, it's hard to pull out your phone and dial 911," East said. "In terms of how we do business, it probably won't change anything. It's additional data we have."

As they wait for the Police Department's legal arm to work out the details, Beattie says he and his partners continue to move toward the app's launch, though they haven't set an exact date for unveiling the app.

Beattie said the group is also working through price models that involve billing campuses and cities, but ideally citizens will not be charged for downloading and using the app.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed

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