Melissa Holzberg: GW should partner with new safety app

Walking around campus after dark may have just gotten a little bit safer.

Thanks to a free smartphone app called Companion, a friend can watch you walk home at night from the comfort of his or her own couch. Companion opens up a map of your immediate area, similar to the one on Google Maps. You input your destination, and request a contact in your phone as your companion. Your route shows up on your screen and your contact’s screen as you walk, so your companion can watch you reach your destination in real time.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Melissa Holzberg

I first heard about Companion from a group of girls talking about it over lunch at Whole Foods. At first, I thought they must be mistaken. The app sounded too good to be true, and I couldn’t believe no one had thought of it before. I knew I wanted to try Companion because I’ve often felt uncomfortable walking home alone at night and anything to make that time more comfortable was worth a shot.

Fourteen colleges have signed onto the app since it launched in November 2014. The newest version was released at the beginning of this month, and one of GW’s peer schools, Vanderbilt University, signed up this fall. It’s time for GW to join the trend, too.

The University already has a similar safety app of its own called the GW Personal Alarm Locator app, which I downloaded as soon as I moved to campus. The app acts as a silent alarm system that allows you to alert the University Police Department to your location at the touch of a button if something goes wrong.

But Companion goes above and beyond GW’s PAL system. When a university partners with Companion, a new option appears when you pull up the map on your way home. It’s called the “uneasy” button. As you walk home, even if you aren’t in immediate danger, you can tell the app that you’re feeling nervous, and that feedback will go directly to campus police.

When asked whether GW has any plans to pair up with Companion, University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar referred me to the PAL app. She also noted that GW will “continually look for ways to upgrade” PAL.

Since downloading Companion, I’ve used it a handful of times with my friends and we all agree: This just makes sense. The PAL app only works when you can anticipate something about to go wrong, but Companion keeps track of your movements for you.

If you don’t reach your destination or you go off course, the app asks if you’re OK and detects sudden movements, like if you’re pushed or thrown to the ground. Companion can contact your local police and your emergency contact is able to do the same. Your safety becomes more than just your responsibility.

Last weekend, I found myself walking home alone around 1 a.m. I realized that my route would take me past the Foggy Bottom Metro stop and I began to feel nervous when I thought of the crime that sometimes occurs in that part of campus. I opened the app and sent a request to one of my girlfriends. Knowing that someone was there watching my movements made me feel much more at ease.

But experts caution that while the app can provide a sense of security, it is certainly not a cure-all. Adán Tejada, the chief of police at St. Mary’s College of California and one of the regional directors at the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said this kind of app would only help in low-crime, quiet communities — not in a city like D.C.

He said in a city, the app “is a really poor replacement for walking home in groups.”

“In quieter communities, it could definitely help contact the right people, but someone who’s just using that app is being provided with a false sense of security,” Tejada said.

But even if it’s not perfect, the Companion app is a step in the right direction. In a survey released last year, 20 percent of freshman girls who responded said they feel unsafe on campus. And even though I’m no longer a freshman, I still get nervous about walking home at night. No one should be a part of that statistic, and by signing onto this app, GW can take one more step to prove their commitment to campus safety.

Officials are already looking at making improvements to GW’s apps. Student Association President Andie Dowd and Executive Vice President Casey Syron have made it one of their priorities to upgrade the 4-RIDE portion of the GW app to allow students to track their vehicle’s location. It would be much faster, though, to simply join Companion, rather than labor over redesigning the University’s own app.

I still remember the first time my parents talked to me about being safe when I went away to school. It was the night before I moved into my freshman dorm, and my family was having dinner at Clyde’s in Georgetown. As I took a bite out of my burger, I noticed my dad was thinking about something but didn’t know how to say it. My usually gregarious father took his time to phrase his next sentence: “I need to know you’ll be safe here.”

I try to do everything I can to be safe at GW. Using this app is the next step we all should take — and officials should sign on, too.

Melissa Holzberg, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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