virtual learning

The business of ed-tech: From blue lights to mobile apps


Once ridiculed, mobile technology is bolstering campus safety through innovative apps

mobile-appsIt was in a 2009 safety committee meeting with University of Florida (UF) officials that Jordan Johnson first mentioned the potential impact of mobile technology in bolstering campus safety.

Johnson, then the UF student body president, was met with blank stares and quizzical looks. He acknowledged web-connected smartphones would need to be more ubiquitous on campus before they became a vital part of safety and security measures, but the reaction was less than welcoming.

“It was mainly making a forwarding-thinking comment,” said Johnson, who proposed the use of mobile technology to boost security after a rash of attacks on UF students. “I know they didn’t really take me seriously though. It was pretty clear the idea was seen as ridiculous.”

The committee decided to spend more money on blue light phones, designed for students in danger to stop and call local authorities.

The university now uses the TapShield safety apps made by Johnson, the company’s CEO. With college student smartphone ownership well over 90 percent and campus police looking for cost effective ways to help students feel more secure on late-night walks and other isolated jaunts, the TapShield app quickly became a UF favorite.

The app, once activated, can send real-time location and profile data to emergency responders if and when a student is in need of help. Students using TapShield can crowd-source emergency response from their smartphone and view real-time crime incidents on campus.

(Next page: Improvement by the numbers)

Response times to threats have been improved by up to 47 percent, according to the company.

Johnson said the real-time appeal of emergency response mobile apps is a marked improvement over the campus security measures of the early and mid-2000s: blue light phones.

“Those phones may have increased the perceptions of security on campus, but it didn’t create any real safety and security for students,” he said. “They’re stationary. It never made much sense to me at all.”

Among TapShield’s most popular features has been the Yank technology, which, when activated, sends an emergency signal to campus authorities if a user’s headphones are pulled from a mobile device. Within 10-15 seconds of the incident, campus police can dispatch responders to the scene.

The Yank feature, Johnson said, has proven popular among college students who enjoy an evening run that can find them along on campus late at night.

“The problem comes when you’re using headphones on run at night and you don’t have situational awareness around you because one of your greatest senses is diminished. You can’t hear,” he said. “It makes a student very vulnerable.”

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