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Messaging, Voice

Startup taps In-app calling, messaging for campus safety

Bandwidth Bandwidth

A few years back, as I participated in a parents’ tour of the University of Pennsylvania, the guide made a rather big deal about the blue-light emergency phones dotting the campus and the police department’s rapid response rate. I know the intent was to assuage concerns about safety on the urban campus, but I still remember being more freaked than comforted.

To my mother’s mind, the extensiveness of the blue-light system made me wonder just how much danger lurked within the ivied walls. And from a practical perspective, I thought, “We’re talking stationary phones here — Lord help the kid who’s trying to reach one, but doesn’t.”

With three daughters in college today, campus safety is very much on my mind regardless, but this particular memory came to me as I chatted last week with Preet Anand, CEO and founder of BlueLight, a mobile safety service for campuses. It’s the visual of that blue-light emergency box on the UPenn campus etched on my brain, I suppose — because ask me to describe what the emergency phone system looks like at the school my daughters attend, and I can’t.

Smartphone Safety?

The thing is, when I think about their safety, I think about their smartphones. I’m entitled to my false sense of security, right? Truthfully, I know if they need the help of an emergency professional, calling 911 from their mobiles can have iffy results, in terms of pinpointing caller location. As Anand said, “It’s crazy that the 911 system is still articulated and designed today, in 2015, for the landline world.”

He’s been thinking about the safety issue ever since hearing campus rape statistics during an orientation session as a college freshman, back in 2006, Anand told me. His first attempt at improving campus safety, a better pepper spray, was “dead on arrival.” But after graduating and working as a product manager for a few years at game developer Zynga, the idea of addressing campus safety via a mobile app clicked with him, he said.

“We use the smartphone for so many different things. I realized if we were going to make a dent in this number [of campus rape victims], it had to live there, on the smartphone,” Anand said.

Anand’s idea, delivered in the BlueLight service, was to develop an app that puts students in touch with emergency responders at a tap. He founded the company in 2013, and, as of last week, BlueLight is now on about 85 campuses across the country — with requests pending at another 450, he said. BlueLight doesn’t publically disclose the number of users, but Anand said the company’s uptake at Marquette University in Milwaukee is typical, where more than 20% of students have the BlueLight app on their phones. On any campus, that’s the expectation within three months.

On the Telephony Stack

The BlueLight app, of course, needed to be communications-enabled. But, given that it is a safety app, BlueLight wouldn’t be able to rely on regular mobile 911 calling because location info is flakey, at best. BlueLight needed a communications partner — one that could ensure the reliability essential to delivery of a safety service, Anand said. Secondarily, BlueLight developers wanted voice and messaging application programming interfaces (APIs) that would be easy to work with, he added.

“We needed a partner on the telephony stack, at that underlying telecom level, that could assure us of the reliability we needed… And ease of working with the APIs was an important decision factor, too, but reliability was far and away the most significant factor,” he emphasized.

Bandwidth was the only communications company that met both criteria, Anand said. It provides an applications platform, plus has built out a nationwide voice network.

Bandwidth not only has voice and messaging APIs, but tens of millions of phone numbers, I learned in a separate conversation with Stephen Leonard, Bandwidth EVP. The company, he said, likes to think of itself as building the Amazon Web Services of telecom. “We provide the ability to do telecom at scale, with all the APIs and capabilities to give somebody tens of thousands of phone numbers, up and running quickly.”

BlueLight to the Rescue

In describing how the BlueLight app works, Anand didn’t want to get too into the weeds for proprietary reasons. But, the basic scenario is this: When a caller presses the BlueLight “Request Help” button on his or her phone, and an Internet connection is available, the app places a database call to grab location information and an authentication token. That data feeds into the Bandwidth API, which places a call to emergency dispatch. When the dispatcher picks up the phone, he’ll hear something along the lines of: “BlueLight caller Beth Schultz, at 101 Main Street, needs help. Connecting you now.” In cases where Internet service isn’t available, pressing “Request Help” triggers a standard 911 call — no location info comes along with that call, of course.

Before any of that can happen, a student must request BlueLight to provide service to a campus. BlueLight will then define the campus boundaries and loads geo-location data to its database, and works with the emergency dispatcher to provide the interface required for delivery of the real-time data that comes along with Request Help call, Anand said. Off campus, the BlueLight service places a standard 911 call and, for Android users, provides nearest location. In addition to the calls to emergency dispatcher, the BlueLight app sends alerts, via SMS, to friends and family, as specified in the user profile. A “Start On My Way” feature sends updates on the user’s location, presumably as he or she walks home across campus.

“We worked with Bandwidth to figure out the right way to do this with high performance and at high reliability, and to get legal clarity on this all,” Anand said. With Bandwidth’s guidance, for example, BlueLight relocated some of its servers in order to get the lowest latency calling possible.

For its part, Bandwidth is happy to be working with companies like BlueLight, Leonard said. “For us, it’s about the next-gen market leaders that are focused on communications — those who are new in the space and doing creative things — and those who see communications as core to their services. That’s boom town!”