Using live video from phones, U-Md. plans to offer virtual safety escorts to students

With a few taps on their phones, University of Maryland students leaving a late class or going for an evening run will soon be able to have a campus security employee watch them on live video to make sure they make it home safely — or send help if they don’t.

Police and university researchers hope to roll out the Escort-M program — a mobile phone app that would link public safety personnel to real-time video and audio from a student’s phone — in the next two or three weeks, authorities said. By the time fall classes begin, students should be able to use their phones at any time to get an instant, virtual escort, instead of waiting 10 to 15 minutes for the in-person escort that university police and student aides already offer, authorities said.

(Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST) - Thera Larson walks in August 2011 on the University of Maryland campus near her workplace.

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“We end up that they don’t call because, well, it’s going to take too long,” U-Md. Police Chief David B. Mitchell said. “This is instant. This is right now.”

Many colleges and universities offer in-person safety escorts, and some offer mobile phone apps that let students tell police where they are going and when they expect to arrive. With those apps, officers can investigate whether students fail to show up at destinations on time.

U-Md. has gone a step further, moving to a real-time video and audio approach that can provide public safety officials with an immediate and accurate picture of unfolding emergencies, said Ashok K. Agrawala, the U-Md. computer science professor who developed the technology.

The Escort-M application is an outgrowth of a mobile phone application that U-Md. police began offering early this year as a more technologically advanced way to call 911. With a few clicks, the so-called M-Urgency app allows students and others to connect to public safety dispatchers and provides the dispatchers with live audio, video and a Global Positioning System location from the students’ phones.

University officials say they plan to promote both apps in the fall as students begin a new school year. So far, about 200 people have signed up for M-Urgency — which is free to students, faculty and staff and can be downloaded like any other mobile application — although police only began offering the iPhone version in the past few weeks, authorities said. It has been used once, authorities said, when a student saw a car on fire in a university parking lot.

The recorded video, Agrawala said, can be used to broadcast descriptions of suspects, to give dispatchers a sense of how serious a situation is or even to save a panicked 911 caller from having to describe a traumatic event. U-Md.’s system also can locate users in the exact building and room from which they are calling, using the university’s wireless network to place them.

“The number of applications are primarily limited by our imagination,” Agrawala said.

When Escort-M is launched, employees in the university’s Security Operations Center who monitor live footage from hundreds of cameras across campus will also watch feeds from the iPhones and Droids of those who request a virtual escort, Agrawala and Mitchell said.

Oliver Minall, 28, a junior electrical engineering student from Bowie, downloaded the M-Urgency app earlier this year after he saw an article about it in the student newspaper. He said he liked the idea of using a phone to provide dispatchers information, such as a precise location, that he might have trouble describing himself.

Minall said that when he dialed 911 last year after spotting a car blow a tire and catch on fire on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, he had trouble telling a dispatcher exactly where he was.

“I really like that whole video and GPS component,” Minall said. “That way you don’t really have to think about what’s going on. You don’t have to think about where you are.”

In early May, Minall said, he was pulling into a U-Md. parking lot when he smelled a rubbery odor. As he checked his own tires, he noticed a car in another parking lot had caught fire. He pulled out his Droid, clicked through to the M-Urgency app and began videotaping the incident.

The program ran successfully, if not flawlessly. Minall said that he did not hear a dispatcher — as he should have — and the app crashed after about a minute. He said that he feared his failure to download a recommended upgrade had caused a glitch, so he called 911. Police later told him they had received the audio and video through the app.

“It ended up working, and I really liked that,” Minall said.

So far, police have spent about $5,000 to purchase a server for the system, Mitchell said. That does not account, however, for the time and resources spent on research and development, which Agrawala, several doctoral students and others did as a part of their regular jobs.

And there could be additional costs.

Police receive about 600 to 700 requests for in-person escorts a year, and they assign on-duty officers or student police aides to handle them, said Capt. Marc Limansky, a U-Md. police spokesman. If the Security Operations Center received substantially more requests for virtual escorts, it might overwhelm the five or six people working on a given shift, Limansky said.

“They already have a core set of responsibilities,” Limansky said. “If this becomes a very popular thing, how many calls are we going to get?”

Agrawala said researchers also have the technology to allow dispatchers to drag and drop the live videos directly into police cruisers, but they are waiting to see whether police upgrade their in-cruiser computer equipment before implementing it. That, Mitchell said, is largely dependent on the state and university budgets.

The M-Urgency application works only on U-Md.’s campus; if pressed outside the boundaries, it makes a normal 911 call, authorities said. Mitchell and Agrawala said other police departments and universities in the D.C. region have asked about the technology, which is available for a licensing fee. For now, their goal is to publicize it with incoming freshmen and returning upperclassmen in hopes it will spread across U-Md.’s campus.

Zach Cohen, 20, a junior from Owings Mills who is majoring in government and politics, said both apps are an encouraging sign that police are using technology that appeals to students.

“If you’re walking back from one of the remote parts of campus and you’re by yourself, I think that’s when it could really help,” Cohen said. “I just think it’s generally a great way for police to use technology to interact with students and at least start making a dent in public safety on the technology front.”

 
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