New app helps McMaster students guard against danger

The McMaster University Safety, Security and Transit app puts emergency contact numbers, transit information and updates about security on campus right in the palms of students' hands.

Program provides security updates, quick line to emergency services

The McMaster University Safety, Security and Transit app provides students with a quick line to emergency services, information on transit times and links to health and counselling services that are available on campus. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

Students returning to Mac this semester have a new lifeline at their fingertips to guard against dangers they face both on and off campus.

The McMaster University Safety, Security and Transit app puts emergency contact numbers, transit information and updates about security on campus right in the palms of students' hands.

'The app is one of the big things in our campaign to promote safety on and off campus.'—Staff sergeant Cathy O'Donnell, McMaster University Security Services

Featured prominently on the app's landing page is bright red tab that links to quick dial buttons for 911 and campus security. Other tabs on the homepage lead to quick dial buttons for the Emergency First Response Team (EFRT), a kind of first aid force run by the McMaster Students Union, and the Student Walk Home Attendant Team (SWHAT), which offers to accompany students at night to any location within in 30-minute radius of campus.

"The app is one of the big things in our campaign to promote safety on and off campus," said Staff Sergeant Cathy O'Donnell,  a security manager with the university.

August attacks

The need for additional tools to protect students from violence was thrown into sharp relief earlier in August, when two sexual assaults in a residential area just south of McMaster made headlines across the city.

In each incident, an assailant grabbed an unsuspecting woman from behind and sexually assaulted her, police have said.

And though a 20-year-old has since been arrested in connection with the attacks, they have raised awareness about security in and around the McMaster campus.

The August assaults gave McMaster staff an opportunity to test out another one of the app's communication features in a grave, real-life situation. Through its @McMasterUpdates Twitter account, the university sent out notifications to smartphones users who had downloaded the app, warning them that a predator was on the loose.

McMaster Students Union president David Campbell said he was impressed at the app's ability to serve as an emergency notification tool for the university.

"This is one more very present way to get this information out," he said.

Released in May

Developed by Weever Apps, a software development company housed at McMaster Innovation Park, the program debuted in May and was updated earlier in August. But the upcoming fall session will represent the first time the app — available for iPhone and Android platforms, as well as for Blackberrys with touchscreens — will have been operational during a full-fledged school year.

In addition to its emergency communication tools, the app features links to trove of information on transit times, health and counselling services and the university's code of conduct.

With students moving into residence this weekend, O'Donnell said the university is gearing up for its "big push" to promote the app. Each key card for residence rooms will come in a cover emblazoned with a QR code that students can scan to download the app. Welcome week leaders, she added, have been trained on how to use the app, and the university will be embarking on a ramped-up promotional campaign, both on campus and online, to raise awareness about the program.

Meaghan Ross, project coordinator for the It's Time to End Violence Violence against Women on Campus campaign, lauded the university for coming out with the app, but said it doesn't do enough to address the root causes of sexual assault and other forms of victimization.

"There's a lot in our society about educating women about protecting themselves," said Ross, whose program is a two-year collaboration between the YWCA and the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton and Area (SACHA). "We're encouraging potential perpetrators not to rape."

The app, and the university in general, should do more to advertise what constitutes sexual assault and what qualifies as adequate consent between sexual or romantic partners, she added.

An opportunity

O'Donnell said the August assaults don't represent an uptick in the number of sexual assaults at or near the university. (On campus, she said, rates have remained steady at about two a year, but noted sexual crimes and domestic violence often go unreported.)

However, Ross said the August attacks, as well as the release of the app, have created a greater interest at McMaster in discussing how to prevent sexual assault.

"It's unfortunate, but it's been a really useful opportunity to talk more about how the university responds to and addresses violence against women on campus."

And with the first day of classes only days away, Campbell said it's still too early to tell how much the attacks will weigh on students' minds as they head back to school.

"The majority of students aren't around, but I think the culture changes a lot once everybody's back on campus."