The chimes and the warning voice on the intercom tell her that the library will close in five minutes. Gathering up her books and telling herself that if she doesn’t know the material by now, she never will, she heads for the door and the long cross-campus walk to her room. But before she heads out into the late evening darkness, she pulls out her smartphone, activates the LiveSafe security app offered by campus police and accesses the SafeWalk function. Through a real-time safety map and in-app messaging system, SafeWalk enables her to designate friends and family members to watch her as she walks home, so while she may walk by herself, she doesn’t walk alone.
Free to users in both Android and iOS versions, the app developed from the desire of co-founder Kristina Anderson to make college campuses safer places to live and study. Anderson, who survived three bullet wounds suffered during the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, returned to the university to finish her degree and in the process, realized that campus safety remained a nationwide issue: “Instead of our tragedy remaining an isolated incident, more violence continues to happen on campuses, in the form of sexual assaults, bullying and shootings. In 80 percent of school shootings, one or two people had information that might have prevented the incident if someone had intervened.”
Anderson went on to launch the Koshka Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving campus safety, and continues to work to raise awareness on the importance of school safety and violence prevention by sharing her story with audiences nationwide. The app, the brainchild of entrepreneur Shy Pahlevani, is a separate venture that grew from a desire to expand the potential of a traditional “text a tip” service to include two-way communication, the ability to send pictures and video, receive crime reports and more.
“The app embodies the vision and movement that students are facing now on college campuses. LiveSafe is helping them navigate ways to keep themselves safer, more informed and aware by facilitating communication with police departments,” Anderson says.
One campus police department that partners with its constituents is Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where VCU Police Chief John Venuti replaced the university’s former text-tip program with the app. Adopting the app has allowed VCU to increase its community policing efforts, a huge plus for a school its size (more than 32,000 students, faculty and staff on campus).
“It’s much more user-friendly and we’ve found the students really like the product. You hardly ever see them without their phones in their hands, and when they submit something, they expect a response. A lot of times we just say something like ‘thank you for contacting us, we’re dispatching a unit,’ and they appreciate the two-way dialog,” Venuti says. “For this demographic, calling 911 is not something they do on a regular basis. We have a lot of dialog with students and we’re constantly trying to understand how they think. We encourage them to let us know if they see something, because we can’t address things we don’t know about.”
VCU became the first institution to launch use of the app at the start of the 2013-2014 academic year, and had nearly 5,000 registered users by the end of the second semester. The police department receives around 10 tips from the app every day, which go to a console in the communications center. An incoming tip generates an audible alert, and 24/7, the dispatch staff provides an immediate, appropriate response. In addition to the one-on-one, two-way communication the app offers, it also can push messages to users in targeted areas, allowing police to, for example, alert only specific users about nearby towing.
“We get tips about suspicious people, about unauthorized vehicles parked in handicapped spots, and just a lot of questions about whether something should be happening,” Venuti says. “Recently we had a report of an individual engaging in lewd behavior in a vehicle, and we were able to quickly resolve that situation. We received tips about a power outage in an area near campus, and based on those tips, deployed extra officers until power was restored.”
VCU has also taken advantage of the robust analytics the app offers to determine which outreach strategies have effectively increased the number of users, and also to determine reporting patterns. Some 60 percent of reports received by VCU come in anonymously, and many involve disturbances, suspicious activity, assault and harassment. Venuti says that in addition to providing the useful analytics, the app’s developers are very responsive to feedback: “As with any new technology, the good stuff evolves every day. The stuff that is new today is outdated tomorrow, and this app is really focused on evaluation based on user demand and feedback.”