If you’re like me, almost every night walking home alone ends with a text to a friend or a significant other that reads, “I’m home.” This is one of many strategies to make sure loved ones know you’ve made it home late at night, particularly when traveling alone. Some also abide by cabs, refusing to take trains alone, but that is expensive. Some carry pepper spray, which is no doubt an effective tool. Others talk on their phones with a friend until they’re home with the door locked safely behind them.
I don’t do any of those things. In fact, I prefer to keep my phone zipped in my pocket, never once looking at it on my commute home if it’s after midnight. Nor do I use headphones. I do this because I prefer to look alert and truly be aware of my surroundings. This is what makes Companion, an app aimed at helping people get home safely, so cool–in theory. You don’t have to look at it constantly, or keep your attention on anything other than your surroundings. All you do is type in your location from a secure place (say, the party, or bar, or apartment you’re about to leave), request your Companion’s watchful eye, and head home.
The first night I tried out the app I made a few mistakes. My intent was to request my Companion (in this case, my boyfriend, who was in Chicago for a wedding) after I got off at my stop in central Brooklyn, NYC. The first mistake I made was that I should have requested him to be my Companion before I left the party I was at in Stuytown. At the time, however, I wasn’t walking to the train alone. For that reason I felt safe. Somehow, on our walk, we caught the attention of a drunken man on the street, and he began to follow us down the street, yelling at us. When he caught up to us, he shoved my friend violently and knocked his glasses off of his face.
The ensuing confrontation was uncomfortable, to say the least, although the physical aspect ended there. However, the safety I assumed I had by not being alone, and in fact being with a male, was completely undermined. Nothing like this had ever happened to me in the city, and I had a real life companion, but I felt unsafe. It caused me to question how an app could be better or keep me safer.
With further use of the app, I began to recognize the sheer peace of mind it gave me. It’s very simple, with few bells and whistles, which lends itself to its purpose. At the time of the confrontation, I did not feel comfortable taking out my phone, but I realize that night was a special case. At any other time, if I were walking home and I felt someone following me, I could slip my phone out of my pocket and choose either, “I Feel Nervous,” or “Call Police,” which are essentially the only two options on the screen besides a map and an icon with your companions initials.
Additionally, if I veered off the route home, the app checked in to see if I was okay, and if I didn’t respond, it alerted my Companion.
“This is both annoying and reassuring,” says Liz Balderston, 21, who lives on the Lower East Side of NYC. She explains, that short distances can prove problematic and even veering slightly off course to avoid a car in the crosswalk will cause the app to check in. “I find that feature reassuring, though definitely annoying at times,” says Balderston.
In my own experience, it was finicky with long distances, too. The app isn’t compatible with “train” cities. It only uses walking directions, and has no concept of train travel. The vibrating feature is also finicky. My phone never vibrated when the app went into “Alert Mode,” which is when it contacts your Companion that you may be unsafe. It does this more often underground, as it’s not equipped to deal with that kind of transportation, so my Companion would get constant updates that I was unsafe when I was not; I just wasn’t using my phone.
If you have the most recent iOS update on the iPhone you may have noticed an application called Find My Friends. It appears to be Apple’s bare-bones answer to the Companion app. The app’s function is to keep your location on a map at all times. You can choose to share your location at any time with as many as 50 contacts. While the app doesn’t “follow you home” like Companion, it does allow family and friends to see your location at any time, which is helpful, because you can check in on someone and see that they made it home. However, you don’t follow them in the same traditional GPS style that Companion utilizes.
All in all, the Companion app, which was developed by college students, definitely has a college focus. If you’re on a college campus, their security is an option next to “I Feel Nervous” and “Call 911.” If the app had the ability to follow my underground trajectory, or at least had knowledge of the subway, it would be the perfect app for New York City or other larger metro areas. I know now that I will use it every time I’m out late and head home alone, maybe even if I’m with a real life buddy, because I never know what could happen.
Although this app doesn’t address the issues of why it has to exist, it does provide young women and men alike the comfort they need to walk home alone safely without fear.
Feature photo courtesy of Andreas Winter.