The fear of walking home alone late at night is one that has been felt by us all. Whether you live in the city or the countryside, the nervous silence that accompanies the witching hour after the sun sets can turn even the bravest of souls into a nervous wreck.
With that in mind, and with first-hand experience of the perils of walking in the dark, five students from the University of Michigan decided to create Companion, a mobile app that allows users to be tracked by friends as they make their way home.
The app, which is free to download, is incredibly easy to use. Users enter their destination and choose as many friends, or “companions”, as they like, enabling those friends to track their movements.
The GPS device within the user’s phone allows companions to follow their every step, beaming clear and real-time updates to those that are watching at the other end.
If anything goes wrong, such as the user veering off course or failing to make it to their destination in a reasonable amount of time, the companion can immediately try to get in contact with the user to find out if there is a problem.
From the other end, Companion’s easy to use controls allow the user to send out an SOS text message to their companions via an “I feel nervous” button, whilst the app’s “alert mode” allows the user to immediately raise the alarm if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.
The app’s simple but effective method of allowing users to feel safe and connected during their journey has resulted in its popularity surging, and since its release just two months ago it has acquired more than 500,000 users.
“We all felt individually and collectively a need for increased safety on campus,” Lexie Ernst, one of the creators of the app, told the website Click on Detroit.
“We realised that technology would be the perfect way to address this issue, so we just started white-boarding ideas and coming up with a plan of how we best felt we could make an impact, and a few weeks later the Companion app was born.”
The app’s simplicity has opened it up to a brand new market away from the campuses of Michigan, and an increasing number of parents are now using it to keep an eye on their children, as well as husbands and wives making sure their spouses are safe.
One such person is Abbie Lynch, a mother of two from Croydon. Both of her children have to walk home from school, and she regularly uses Companion to make sure that nothing untoward happens on their journey back.
“It definitely gives me great peace of mind,” she said. “Before, I’d often worry whether or not their journey was going well, but now I can follow them all the way and know for definite that they are safe.”
On the face of it, Companion seems like the perfect creation, and one that can only do good.
However, scratching the surface and spending time with the app, several problems emerge.
A main issue is the problem of depleting mobile phone battery life, one that is all too common at the end of a night away from a charger.
If the user’s battery dies in the middle of a journey, the blue dot on the map being transmitted to companions just stops moving, which is a guaranteed way to make anybody worry about what might have happened.
There is a similar problem when the human element of the app’s effectiveness is scrutinised.
What if, after a long night out on the town, the user accidentally drops or loses their phone? This is bound to happen at some point and there is no way for the user, who may be blissfully unaware of what has happened, to notify their companions to let them know that they shouldn’t worry.
And while the Companion founders’ intentions are genuinely focused on personal safety, there are also worries the app could be used for more sinister means.
Users need to send requests to companions to track their journey, which reduces the chances of third parties using the app to follow them unknowingly, but there are still issues surrounding its use by those with worrying intentions, such as an abusive or distrusting spouse.
This is a problem that apps such as Life360, which, in a similar way to Companion, allows family members to keep in contact and broadcast their current location, and Find My iPhone have had to contend with in the past, as anything that allows for such close monitoring of another human being can result in tragic consequences.
However, the proof of the pudding is in the experience of the user, and so far Companion has received overwhelmingly positive reviews as it starts to make an impact outside of America.
In the words of Lisa Wilson, a second-year university student from Walthamstow: “I have thought about the potential problems but, for me, all I can go on is how I feel.
“Every time I’ve used Companion it’s made me feel 100 per cent safe, and that’s all that matters.”
Featured image by Anders Eriksson via Flickr CC.