The new university app feature, called Safewalk, expands on an already existent BYU program to enable police to track students’ locations through their smartphones and virtually “walk” with students through campus and the student housing areas.
Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is offering a new feature in their university app that allows police to provide students with a virtual escort if they feel unsafe. The feature, called Safewalk, expands on an already existent BYU program to enable police to track students’ locations through their smartphones and virtually “walk” with students through campus and the student housing areas.
The physical SafeWalk program BYU offers pairs a student or employee with a police or building security officer to walk them across campus late at night or early in the morning. The virtual SafeWalk, a collaboration between BYU, campus police and a student advisory board, offers similar peace of mind without an officer physically present.
Users can access the SafeWalk feature on their phone in BYU’s app and log in with their student or employee information. They confirm their destination on a map, and the app will text them to let them know their SafeWalk has begun and they can start moving. As users walk across campus with the app enabled, campus police are able to track their location and progress toward their marked destination.
Police monitoring a user’s SafeWalk will be alerted when the user’s velocity rapidly increases, signaling that they have gotten into a vehicle. The SafeWalk feature also lets them know if users take too long to get to their destination or stray far from the path.
If something looks wrong, police can contact a user to verify if they’re safe. The app allows users to hit a button to indicate that they’ve arrived at their target safely, and it also includes a large emergency button for users to press if they feel unsafe, letting police know to respond and possibly move to their location.
“It gives us a method where if they do feel unsafe or in an unsafe situation and they hit that emergency button, we know exactly where they are, we know who they are and we can communicate with them very quickly,” said Steve Goodman, the manager of the BYU Police Technology and Communications Center.
The location tracking raised concerns among students about whether their location could be monitored without actively using the SafeWalk feature, but according to developers, the app does not allow users to be tracked unless SafeWalk is enabled. As soon as the SafeWalk ends, the user’s location is no longer visible by police.
Since the launch of the virtual SafeWalk, police have had to respond to users physically in a few situations. In each instance, the student’s phones had died.
“I think we live in a time where the need may be just the fact that we’re able to do it, and maybe there’s been a need for a long, long time, for this type of thing. We can do it now, we know how to do it and so why shouldn’t we use that to make it a safer place?” said Lt. Steven Messick with BYU Police Department.