With a tap on his smartphone, University of Maryland student Shiv Krishnamoorthy can instantly alert police as he walks through the dimly lit corners of the College Park campus — and share with them his precise location, plus live video and audio.
The app, which was developed by a university computer science professor and a team of students in conjunction with campus police, is the first of its kind in the small but growing field of smartphone apps for campus security.
M-Urgency will be available to Maryland students, faculty and staff early next month.
While the state university's flagship campus does not have a serious crime problem, Krishnamoorthy, a doctoral candidate who helped develop M-Urgency, said students are eager for smartphone applications that will help them feel safer on campus.
"This is something they're really looking forward to," Krishnamoorthy said.
Security-oriented apps are poised for growth, analysts said, particularly on college campuses, where a growing number of students are carrying the powerful, Internet-connected devices wherever they go.
After mass shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and other schools, campus security directors are seeing value in enabling their students to report urgent events in real time from their smartphones.
"Many, many police chiefs and directors of public safety have seen that their jobs change from being the head of a campus public safety entity to being an emergency manager on campus," said Paul Verrecchia, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and police chief of the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
Several companies are partnering with colleges and universities to provide such technology.
AT&T promotes a service called Rave Guardian that enables students to send information about themselves and their location to campus security.
The AT&T service also offers a precautionary timer: If a student sets the timer and doesn't arrive at his or her destination before the time elapses, the program immediately makes emergency notifications to friends, family or law enforcement.
AT&T charges college campuses licensing fees ranging from $10,000 for up to 5,000 full-time students to $50,000 for campuses that have more than 15,000 students, according to online promotional materials.
A Canadian startup called Guardly made its smartphone app available this year. It allows users to set up notification alerts by voice or text message to friends, family and authorities.
Its business model is similar to the home alarm industry, which typically makes money from monthly fees for alarm monitoring. The company is pursuing licensing deals with universities, according to chief executive Josh Sookman.
"It's a really big market opportunity," said Sookman, who said campuses can market their security tools to help retain students.
But security is a sensitive topic for image-conscious colleges, which some industry observers say are more inclined to promote apps that highlight campus amenities or engage alumni for fundraising purposes.
"There are other ways to make students feel safe," said Todd Marks, chief executive officer of Baltimore-based Mindgrub Inc., which makes mobile apps for colleges and other organizations.
Apps that help students use their phones to pay for food, order cabs, check bus schedules and transfer money can help make them safer by cutting down on the time they spend walking and waiting outside, he said.
The Johns Hopkins University has begun to make real-time updates on its shuttle buses available through NextBus.com. Hopkins officials hope the website, which can send text alerts on bus times, will help reduce the amount of time students wait on the streets for buses.
Other area schools, including Loyola University Maryland, Towson University, and the University of Baltimore, also provide bus schedule information through the service, which may be accessed on any mobile phone that has a Web browser.
"The methods for communicating with students have changed radically and continue to evolve very quickly," said Dennis O'Shea, a Hopkins spokesman. "We do need to be always thinking how students are communicating, and reach them where ever they are."
Before the rise of cellphones, schools tried to help students feel safe by installing blue-light phones to connect to campus security. Such phones remain on campuses throughout the state.
Maj. Jay Gruber, who oversees technology for the College Park campus police, said the school has 350 monitored cameras and 300 blue-light phones. The campus also is deploying license plate tracking technology to follow vehicles and correlate them to crimes on campus if necessary, he said.
He said campus police are working with the computer science department to develop security smartphone apps because they're not quite happy with what's currently on the market.
"What we're hoping for now is that we'll get real-time situational awareness for the officers arriving at the scene, and immediately get the caller's location," he said.
The app will be useful for those on campus if they become a victim of a crime, if they want to report a crime in progress or alert authorities to a fire, Gruber said.
The app is one of a suite of programs that computer scientists at the campus are developing to improve the quality of life on campus.
Professor Ashok Agrawala, the University of Maryland computer science professor who led the development of the security app, said he is working on a range of "context-aware" applications for computing devices. He runs the university's Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Lab.
Using smartphones, tablets and computers, the applications Agrawala and his team develop will be able to receive input from a user's environment, such as location data, and supply useful information, such as shuttle bus locations and schedules.
The university plans to license the M-Urgency technology to other companies, which would develop their own security products with it. Agrawala sees the potential for the application to be used at other universities, and in cities.
"It's safer for you to carry a smartphone than to carry a gun," Agrawala said.
The university offered the city of College Park the chance to participate in the M-Urgency program for $100,000 — money that would have come out of the municipality's speed camera revenues. City officials declined the offer this month.
Verrecchia, of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said security technology has come down in price over the years, mainly because cellphones now include GPS technology.
In the past, if schools wanted students to have that technology, they would have had to provide it, raising the costs significantly.
But large-scale emergencies, from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, have forced campus security directors to look at a wide range of technology to prepare for contingencies. It's easier to link to the devices that are already in students hands — cellphones — than give them additional gadgets to carry.
"It's a technical revolution, period," said Verrecchia.
While smartphones may be used for public safety, they can also be a distraction, preventing a user from noticing what's happening around him. Campus safety advocates caution students to always be aware of their surrounding and not to get so engrossed in their cellphones that they become oblivious to their safety.
Smartphones "are positive in terms of instant notification and methods to call for help instantly or get a photo/video of a suspect," said Alison Kiss, executive director of the nonprofit Security on Campus Inc.
"On the other hand, when a student is on the phone or not paying attention to his or her surroundings, it can be dangerous."
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