Are smartphones making campus blue lights obsolete?

02 Sep

From Education Dive

As certain types of crime increase on campus, apps are increasingly helping students feel safe

During the summer of 2014, Marquette University administrators noticed a rise in burglaries and armed robberies on campus. Students and faculty members get alerts following every incident, describing what happened and where, meaning the entire campus community developed some level of concern for the uptick.

Marquette’s experience is not uncommon. From 2011 to 2013, the latest year for which data is available, the U.S. Department of Education reported a 10% increase in the number of non-property-related crimes on campuses. Those include armed robberies as well as physical and sexual assaults.

Timothy Cigelske, director of social media for Marquette, said the university held a series of focus groups with students to find out what would make them feel and be safer. Since then, the university has implemented a number of new initiatives, including a couple that rely on students’ use of cell phones.

“That’s just how students operate,” Cigelske said. “They’re on smartphones, they carry them with them at all times. They’re their lifeline.”

During those focus groups, students mentioned Uber — still a relatively new service to Milwaukee at the time. Now Marquette has a partnership with the car-sharing service, officially marketing it as an option for travelling off-campus.

Students also mentioned a desire for an app that would let them contact campus safety with their cell phones at the touch of a button. While Marquette maintains more than 450 BlueLight and service phones on and near campus for emergency use, students wanted something even closer to their fingertips.

Personal safety apps are considered the next generation of blue light systems. Some campuses, including the University of California-Davis, have decided that such apps, and cellphones more generally, have made bluelight systems obsolete.

Preet Anand, CEO of BlueLight, which makes the app Marquette decided on, doesn’t necessarily think that will be the case for a couple of reasons. First, while smartphone adoption on college campuses has surpassed 90%, it is still not 100%. And second, privacy concerns may keep students from agreeing to let the app track their movements around campus. Because its services are location-based, BlueLight users must grant access to location data to use it.

“Some people I just don’t think will be comfortable doing that,” Anand said.

In some ways, too, the familiar blue lights of stationary telephones are a comforting presence to many students making their way around campus. And supporters argue their location data is, at times, more accurate than cellphone GPS.

But so far, all of the freshmen Cigelske has spoken to following fall semester orientation activities have downloaded the BlueLight app and plan to incorporate it into their newly forming safety routines. Students can choose five emergency contacts to get an alert when they double-tap BlueLight’s Request Help button. Tapping automatically connects students to the nearest first responder, whether it be campus or community police, and sends messages to the emergency contacts.

An “On My Way” feature lets students share their location with friends or family as they move from one location to another, sending a notification when the student arrives at his or her destination. After finding comfort in this tool, one Marquette student said in a review “BlueLight was the app I’d never known I needed.”

While all of Marquette’s safety services are part of a comprehensive whole, including targeted social media outreach to get students to adopt safe behaviors, Cigelske said using mobile technology is a no-brainer. Like the digital changes that have modernized classrooms, campus safety has room to grow.

“You have to meet students where they are,” Cigelske said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to tear down our old fashioned blue light boxes around campus, but you have to see what the reality is today, what people are doing, and take advantage of those technologies.”

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