Increasing Safety Through the Use of Mobile Applications

A recent report from the Pew Research Center (2015) estimates that 64 percent of American adults own a smartphone of some kind.8 Smartphone ownership is especially high among younger adults (i.e., 18-29) – particularly those from families with relatively high education and income levels. It is thus not surprising that smartphone use has increased substantially on higher education campuses in recent years. According to Dahlstrom and Bichsel (2014), 76 percent of undergraduates owned a smartphone in 2013, and this percentage increased to 86 percent just one year later.2

76% of undergraduates owned a smartphone in 2013, and this percentage increased to 86 percent just one year later

With the steady increase of smartphone use on campuses across the nation, many higher education institutions are using this opportunity to increase school safety through the use of mobile devices. For instance, at one campus in Texas, a web-based mobile application (app) known as "EduSafe" was designed to educate faculty, staff, and students on how to respond to emergency situations including chemical spills, natural disasters, violence, and bomb threats. The EduSafe app is free to download through iTunes and Google Play and it works on iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. Students can also use this app to report hazards or safety concerns, request security escorts, or access security statistics in an effort to improve safety on campuses.3, 6

These safety apps have also been expanded to be useful in a number of different situations that can impact student safety. For instance, interpersonal relationships and personal decision-making can have a major impact on student safety on campus. Dating violence does unfortunately occur on some campuses, and according to recent research, students in abusive relationships will often reach out via their social networks and technology for support, rather than to school officials.4, 5 Some safety apps have been developed to address this issue by providing a platform for students to seek assistance on safe relationships and report incidents of dating violence. These apps can further provide tools to assist students in developing personal safety plans, and help them access resources in their environments.

According to recent research, students in abusive relationships will often reach out via their social networks and technology for support, rather than to school officials

For example, the MyPlan app can be used by individuals who are in abusive relationships as a decision-making tool to assist them in making critical safety decisions while in the relationship and when deciding to end the relationship. It can also be used by friends of individuals in abusive relationships to increase awareness and promote helpful responses. Early research on the apps effectiveness has yielded promising results.4, 5 Other universities and colleges across the country have adopted and/or developed similar types of apps. For example, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Baltimore use the LiveSafe app which was co-founded by a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting and the University of Florida uses the TapShield app.7 All these apps are aimed at improving safety and security. There are also a number of apps available now that students can find and download on their own. Circle of 6, for example, is an app that allows students connect to a chosen circle of six friends instantly in times of potential danger, to let them know where they are, and how they can help. Alerts can be sent covertly with two taps of the phone.1 As with most areas of technology, this field is rapidly developing and expanding, and most of these apps have been developed within the last five years. It is likely that upcoming years will bring further development and improvement.

What Can Educational Institutions Do?

Safety apps have the potential to offer many advantages to educational institutions including K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities. Although these apps have been used predominately by institutions of higher education at this point, there may be benefits to K-12 educational environments as well. Some of these advantages include convenience for both the user and educational institution, the ability to reach a large number of students, and the capability to meet safety needs more directly and quicker when compared to other alternatives.

Safety apps have the potential to offer many advantages to educational institutions including K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities

In times of need, apps can be used to send instant text or visual messages tagged with GPS locations to public safety officials, who can then respond with questions or further instructions on a particular issue. The apps might also include real-time GPS mapping of local crimes, which will allow individuals to avoid potentially dangerous areas. Some apps also have live GPS tracking, which allows students who might be walking late at night to request monitoring by campus-safety officials until they reach their destination.7 Additionally, some of these safety apps provide a platform that students can utilize to report non-emergency or security concerns that they may have. Furthermore, a majority of these app share safety resources and contact information that are easy to navigate on several mobile devices or platforms. Ultimately, this technology provides diverse ways for the promotion and management of safety and security issues on campuses in a format that is becoming increasingly common for students.

Therefore, it is recommended that educational institutions consider adopting and/or developing mobile safety applications and online safety tools for their campuses in order to facilitate safety and security in a world that is becoming increasingly digital. Also, it is important to note that schools, colleges and universities should consider their own circumstances when deciding if a mobile application would support their safety and security efforts, and which application may be the most effective. Although these apps are becoming more popular, and will likely be attractive to a younger audience, they may not be effective in all types of campuses. Research on the effectiveness of these applications is likely to continue as they expand in the coming years.

References

1Circle of 6. (2015). Retrieved July 21, 2016 from: http://www.circleof6app.com/

2Dahlstrom, E., & Bichsel, J. (2014). Education Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) study of undergraduate students and information technology, 2014. Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, October 2014. Available from http://www.educause.edu/ecar.

3Fruchtnicht, E.H., Lutz, L.D., Fellers, J.W. & Hanks, C.D. (2014). Proactive Safety, Designing and Implementing a Mobile Application. Program Development Peer-Reviewed. Available from http://www.asse.org.

4Glass, N., Clough, A., Case J., Hanson, G., Barnes-Hoyt, J., Waterbury, A., Alhusen, J., Ehrensaft, M., Grace, K. T., & Perrin, N. (2015). A Safety app to respond to dating violence for college women and their friends: the MyPlan study randomized controlled trail protocol. BioMedCentral Public Health, 15. 871-884.

5Lindsay, M., Messing, J.T., Thaller, J., & Baldwin, A. (2013). Survivor feedback on a Safety Decision Aid Smartphone Application for College-Age Women in Abusive relationship. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 31. 368-388.

6M.L.T. (2013). Mobile Emergency Preparedness. University Business, 16(8), 49.

7O'Neil, M. (2014). Sophisticated mobile apps are reshaping campus safety. Chronicle of Higher Education, 60(26), 13-13.

8Smith, Aaron. (2015). U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Retrieved July 21, 2016 from: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/