Safe Map: Phone application makes walking safer for college students

Knight Challenge Application: Safe Map

Phone Application connects to Google Maps to create safe routes for college students

Team Members:  Anders Johnson, Sarah Girard, Ian Campbell, and Madeleine Gerson

Requested amount: $50,000

Expected time for project completion: Six months


The project

We plan to create an application, Safe Map, that would—in partnership with Google Maps—create safer walking routes for app users. We would take the information from recent crime alerts to create paths that avoid areas that tend to be high crime. Those routes will also be in well lit areas, along busier main roads (rather than side streets).  In addition to giving customers areas to avoid we hope to eventually equip the app to provide users with further “safe information”; this might include safe businesses, safe rides, and safe walking groups nearby or in the areas through which our users are walking. This “safe information” of every person, business, and ride will be verified through the app before they are permitted to participate. We hope the inclusion of this information into phone navigation processes will allow us to keep lone pedestrians safer by exploiting smart technology capabilities to suggest the safest and most inexpensive routes to arrive at their destinations.

As we know, there may sometimes be areas that are not particularly safe, with no easy alternative walking route for individuals. This is why we would like the app to have multiple distinct features. Our primary goals are to provide alternative modes of transportation and safe walking groups for pedestrians walking alone. If there is no safe walking route to take, the app will alert the user of other modes of transportation; this could be data about available public transportation such as a shuttle or bus, recommending the user uber or taxi, and include a phone number for nearby taxi services. The second feature is safe walking groups. After completing a profile with some background information and passing a safety check, the user would be approved as a walking buddy. We understand that there could be concerns about the reliability and safety with connecting with another user. Another requirement of the background check could be to provide a university email in order to be approved—this would be an early model that might be modified in the future. With that feature, if there are multiple app users in the same area, they have the option to send a direct message and connect in order to walk to their destination in a pair or in a larger group. Additionally, if there is no fellow user in the vicinity, people will be presented with the option to speak on the phone with other users.  

These primary objectives to provide safe routes and alternatives would be tested during the trial phase of the app and with good success we would hope to continue developing so that we may add the safe information features as soon as possible but with feedback from the trial users of our app. The final development of this app should prove to create vibrant and safe communities for pedestrians to navigate even in the dead of night when these communities can feel deserted and more dangerous than usual. If our Knight application is accepted, we will be one step closer to accomplishing our mission of improving safety on college campuses. We hope that Safe Map reaches colleges and universities across the nation, making campuses safer one app user at a time.

Unmet needs

Our idea is innovative because nothing as comprehensive as it exists. It would combine aspects of many different apps into one to allow people to take the safest route possible. While there are websites, such as, which create maps that display types of crimes in which locations, there is no service which reroutes an individual’s map. Additionally, these services are often inaccurate.

College students are unlikely to be able to afford the cost of having a vehicle on campus and may not have parking available. At the University of Michigan, many do not own a car and those who live off campus either rely on walking or a bus for transportation. A U-M Transportation Research Institute study found that the number of 19 year-olds with driver’s licenses has dropped by almost 20% from 1983-2010.

Walking has become more dangerous in Ann Arbor, which is evident from the four armed robberies committed in January and February, leading the city police to increase patrols. For every 1,000 residents in Ann Arbor, there are about 29 crimes committed, contributing to an annual 3,353 crimes. In fact, a recent Michigan Daily survey found that approximately 73% of female student respondents reported feeling afraid to walk home at night.

This high crime is not unique to the University of Michigan. In 2012, in the New York Times article,  “Students Fear Venturing Out Alone at Night on Campus,” Aimee Ball discusses the measures that students and their universities are taking to promote night safety. The author notes that there is a trend among colleges’ late night shuttle services to have long wait times and that some colleges are providing students with public safety awareness programs. While each of these efforts; violence prevention education, safety programs, and riding share services, contribute to creating a safer campus environment, our app is unique in that it integrates all of these needs in a comprehensive platform that addresses a multi-faceted issue.

Potential user interviews

To see if there was interest in an application which expands Google Maps to avoid high crime areas, we interviewed several undergraduate students at the University of Michigan, and a local business, Toarmina’s Pizza.

Nihal Anishetty, a graduating senior in LSA who lives about half-mile from central campus doesn’t feel unsafe walking alone ever in Ann Arbor but thinks a good idea might be an added feature of Google maps that would help pedestrians navigate their routes in cities more safely. He feels that speed of arrival and minimal perceived danger are most important. (734)-645-2919

Alison John, a U-M sophomore lives one mile from central campus, and oftentimes, due to her late night/early morning job in university catering, has to walk home by herself. John said she makes sure to stay weary while walking. (248-885-9987)

“I don’t feel like I’m in serious danger but I feel nervous when I see lone cars or people walking nearby,” John said. “A few weeks ago, I got an email about a crime nearby my house. Now, I feel much less safe walking home at night.”

Francis Buggia, a 22 year old employee at Pretzel Bell, mentioned that he never felt unsafe walking to work from U-M’s campus, which he lives close by. “It’s always lit, and I guess I’ve never even thought I was in danger, even after late night shifts.” When we told him about our idea for the app including well lit areas, he even added that he sometimes take main roads when coming back from bars late at night in order to avoid potentially dangerous situations.

Lorraine Furtado, a U-M freshman, feels, “unsafe walking home alone at night, especially in unlit areas.” One of her concerns is that she will be targeted due to race, and she says, “almost all fellow women of color I know feel the same way.” Lorraine is unaware of most blue lights’ locations, and found safe-ride very confusing. She often uses Google maps to walk home at night, and feels much safer while talking to her friends on the phone. (248) 558-0338.

Size of potential market

The market will initially target people in US cities whose main transportation type is walking, with an option to expand globally in the future. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 62.7% of the US population lives in cities. A 2005 survey by the Census Bureau found that 107.4 million people used walking for transportation three days a week. We have an ultimate goal of spreading our application to reach the approximately 50 million college students in the United States (U.S. Department of Education) at 5,300 college and university campuses in the United States (Huffington Post).

Innovation and Competitors

Other services can be inaccurate. For instance, we noticed SpotCrime Crime Map—a website and app that displays visuals for various types of crime data—is missing several recent crime reports in Ann Arbor. In addition, our app would give students alternative suggestions if it believes there isn’t a safe route available. One major competitor on the University of Michigan’s campus is Safe Ride. The riding service is only available for specific hours and from certain U-M locations such as the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, Duderstadt Center, and Cancer Center. The wait time can be up to thirty or forty minutes—a significant deterrent for students who may be out in the cold or can’t afford to wait because they need sleep. In addition, these locations are inconvenient, making the service impractical for those who may need a ride home from a party or a friend’s house that may be farther from downtown. Still, there are some other similar apps. One app that was developed by college students is Companion, a cell phone app that enables students to virtually walk home with a friend, enabling the friend to check the user’s location. The app has proven to be very successful, yet is lacking in some aspects. For example, there is not much a friend can do from a distance in their homes, which is why our application would create a regulated system for walking buddies and walking groups, so that crime can more directly be prevented.

Financial sustainability

Our goal is to create an app that comes at no cost to the customer, free for purchase at the Apple store. Of course, creating an application doesn’t come at no cost which is why we have created a plan for financial sustainability. We will rely on in-app advertising, advertisement free app purchasing, and business suggestion advertising to remain profitable. One component of Safe Map is having local businesses opt in to serve a safe map. With our partnership, we will encourage businesses to purchase advertisements that will be regularly featured. With a small cost, businesses will be able to attract customers to their restaurants later at night, a time which business can sometimes be slow late hours into the night.

We will also look into the possibility of looking for a sponsor which would help with marketing and increase traffic to the app. According to a 2013 Forbes article, the average app costs $99 cents, with the average revenue per Google app at $1,125 and average revenue per developer at $6,000. With this plan to incorporate in-app advertising, app purchasing and business suggestion advertising, Safe Map’s financially sustainability is sure to bring profits to both us, the developers, and any potential sponsors.

Why we have the right to develop Safe Map

We are college students who don’t own vehicles, and must walk multiple miles most days, including at night, to get where we need to go. Three of us live off campus and have recently received multiple crime alerts from the U-M DPSS in the past three months about armed robberies as well as an assault in October. Not to mention a number of reported hate crimes. We are concerned for the safety of our friends, our classmates, and ourselves. We are also quite frugal with our money, so to spend it on taxis can be cringeworthy. We are passionate about helping others walk safely.



3 Responses to “Safe Map: Phone application makes walking safer for college students”

  1. Great work, Safe Map team! I think this is an excellent proposal: something that both addresses an urgent need on college campuses AND could be very do-able with current Google and geo-mapping technology.

    When I first looked at your proposal, I immediately thought of the Companion app developed by UM students. I’m glad you mentioned it in your proposal, because I think it is such a great concept. I wonder if there is any way Safe Map could partner with Companion? I feel like the app components would work really well together in one combined app. Right now, I feel like your concept (providing the safe route) is something Companion is missing.

    I think all of your sections were well-written, and the “Unmet Needs” section was especially strong because it included relevant and well-framed statistics that really helped make your argument.

    The one component of your app that makes me a little nervous is the “safe walking groups” feature. As a female who walks alone on the UM campus often, I think that feature would almost make me MORE nervous than walking alone unless there was a really thorough screening process. The college email address is a good first step. But I just think, for someone with bad intentions – this literally provides a pool of people who feel vulnerable and want someone to walk with them in a secluded area. The screening process would need to be thorough and transparent.

    Here’s an interesting article on research that is being done to create algorithms to make something like Safe Map possible: (one note it makes about a previous app, SketchFactor, that labeled unsafe areas: make sure your app does not profile areas in a racist/classist way). These researchers could be a partnership to look into, as you build the map algorithms.

    Finally, love the idea of providing “safe stops” along the route if users ever feel unsafe.

    Again – great work! I’m looking forward to seeing your pitch video!

  2. Thank you Kelly! I definitely think it would be interesting to see what student developers of Companion would have to say about Safe Map, and the potential for creating safe walking paths using geo mapping, as Companion ultimately has the same goal in making walking at night safer for college students. When our team was thinking about creating walking groups, we had similar concerns that you mentioned. I could definitely see that even with a background check and university email, students would feel hesitant to connect with a walking buddy/group, and that the system could be abused. An alternative to this setup is that we could potentially have a group of ten or so employees (or volunteers) of Safe Map who are designated walking buddies. Then, if an app user is scared, they can choose to call the Safe Map employee to walk them home. We would definitely have to gage interest and see if this is a feasible option. I know that U-M CSG is looking into creating a late night task force for walking students home.Thank you so much for your suggestions and for sharing the link to the story about SketchFactor.

  3. Hi, Team SafeMap.
    I agree with Kelly that this is a really important need and your idea has a lot of potential. However, as I was reading your proposal I was reminded of something that happened to me when I was about your age. I was living in Long Beach, CA, and reporting for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. One evening, when I came home, the courtyard of my small apartment building was filled with police. Of course, I walked up to one of them and asked what was happening. It turned out that there had been a murder in one of the apartments right next to the stairs that I took every day. The officer told me that someone in that apartment had been dealing drugs. I said to the officer something like: Wow, I didn’t realize this place was so shady. Maybe I should move. The officer said: “No need to move out now. Now you’re fine. You should have moved out a few months ago.” I tell this story, of course, because I’m not sure that the location of a previous attack is necessarily a good indication of where the next attack will be. Yet it is still information.
    If you move forward with this idea in the future – as I hope you will — I encourage you to try to talk with a lawyer or law student about the liabilities involved in your idea. Maybe you also should consider the name carefully. Of course, you can’t guarantee that any walk will be safe. Also, you might get push-back from merchants along a walk that you label “unsafe.” Just be careful of the language you use and consider who might be hurt by the advice you are sharing.
    Good work so far!

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