Dorming at a college with a large campus is like living in small city, with hundreds, if not thousands, of new strangers all together in one place, heading to their destinations on foot rather than by car or bus. Ever find yourself constantly looking over your shoulder while walking back to your dorm late at night, maybe after a study session or a party? Fear no more, because UNC Chapel Hill student Nina Barnett seeks to eradicate that awful paranoia with her app Grooop.
Barnett says her motivation for creating the app was due in part to her friend group. “I became interested in this idea, because I saw the need for a fun, safe way to keep track of my friends, and I didn’t want to just sit around waiting for something to get invented,” she says. “I was the ‘mom’ of the friend group, and I wanted an easy, efficient way to make sure every single one of my friends was safe.”
In addition to this, Barnett feared for her own safety on campus several times, but never felt it was appropriate to call the police. “I had moments when I was on [UNC’s] Main Street walking home from studying and I was really worried about my safety, but I never felt like I should call the police… [Grooop] is a way to stay safe with such minimal actions, but I don’t have to go from safe to calling the police.” The app is for Barnett’s peace of mind just as much as it is for her friends.
How The App Works
Grooop is available for download through Apple’s App Store, and requires only a simple sign-up utilizing the user’s name, number and email. After that, the user is given a couple options: to create a “New Zone” and a “New Grooop.” Each zone is an area the user designates as safe. These places can be your home, your dorm, the gym or even the library. The group option allows the user to place all friends they wish to notify of their whereabouts in one place, whether they’re out with the user or not.
From the homepage of the app, the user can update their status to their group, choosing from four options: Alert!, Out & About, I’m Ready and I’m Good. Leaving a safe zone automatically notifies group members that the user is “Out & About.” This enables users to feel safer knowing that at the touch of a button, help is available. The inclusion of the group feature gives a more social vibe to ordinary safety and vigilance, as the app favors a simpler interface compared to other safety apps touted by universities. In case of an emergency, where even unlocking your phone could prove to be too much, Grooop has a widget available from the lock screen. With a quick swipe, users can change their status and alert their friends if they need help.
Making Safety Fun
In Grooop’s development, Barnett focused heavily on making sure the app would be different from typical safety apps. “So many times college students are told by their parents or loved ones to download a safety app, but no student is ever really excited about it. I wanted this to be different,” she says. In an age of overwhelming smartphone use, college campuses have seen a rise in apps created specifically for safety and security. In a statement from the National Center for Campus Public Safety, a poll shows that in 2015, 86 percent of college students regularly used a smartphone. With this in mind, approaching safety from a technological angle only makes sense. These days, college campuses are moving away from the traditional Blue Light Phones for something that can fit in your pocket.
In July 2016, Barnett approached the developers Smashing Boxes in Durham, North Carolina, and dove straight into the app-making process. Says Barnett, “[The developers and I] conducted many interviews with students and young adults to refine my ideas to give people exactly what they wanted with no frills or gimmicks. We did pages and pages of research on similar apps to see what worked and didn’t work.” After many months of research, Grooop began beta testing in early winter 2017. The campuses chosen for the beta tests were UNC, Alabama, Wake Forest, UC Berkeley and Vanderbilt.
Each campus had five to eight students using the app, with every group filling out a survey prior to and after the test commenced. The surveys gathered information on the beta testers’ likes and dislikes of certain features, and how safe they felt while using the app. Barnett determined which features to keep and which to drop based on beta tester feedback. “The app’s goal is to deliver to the users and help them have an enjoyable and fun experience while being safe,” she says.
The results? With the survey complete, over half of the beta testers said they felt much safer while using the app. Grooop went on to have a soft launch in June 2017, with the hard launch occurring the following July.
As a Physics and Dramatic Arts double major, Barnett finds that her studies greatly aided her in developing Grooop. The Dramatic Arts side lends presentation skills and people skills, allowing Barnett to harness the confidence necessary when pitching ideas to different companies and college campuses. Even the Physics side proved to be advantageous. “The way of problem solving involved in a ‘physics mind’ helps to analyze many situations, which proves to be essential during meetings, hiccups in development and marketing.”
However, Barnett’s foray into app creation wasn’t always so smooth. “Nothing in the start-up business is ever perfect from the start. Because I am still a full-time student and hadn’t run my own business before, there were certainly transition periods.” Barnett credits the strength of her development team for guiding her through these rough patches.
Barnett has big plans for Grooop. One facet of these endeavors includes a student ambassador program. A campus ambassador actively promotes the app on their campus, organizing events that promote campus safety. As a result of current efforts, app usage has spread from coast to coast, and even to a few countries overseas. “I want Grooop to be an app that revolutionizes safety,” she says. “My goal is that people will think to themselves, ‘I don’t remember what life was like before I had Grooop; it’s a necessity.’ I value the success of Grooop, but I value campus safety more.”