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App designer student codes winning smartphone app

Two mobile phones with screenshots from the Safe Trek app.

A single button and PIN number are two key components to the functionality of the Windows app, Safe Trek. The app, which was designed as a collaboration among business, journalism and engineering students, won the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Windows 8 Student Competition in May. Image courtesy of Zach Winkler

A new smartphone app, unveiled at the Reynolds Journalism Institute Tech Showcase in May, promises to give university students more assurance of a safe walk across campus.

Safe Trek was developed by Zach Beattie, Natalie Cheng and Zach Winkler, from the MU Trulaske College of Business, School of Journalism, and computer science program, respectively, for the 2013 Windows 8 mobile app development competition. This “blue light in the palm of your hand,” as the team calls it, may yet be the next generation of community-engaged public safety systems.

Winkler and his team were awarded first place in the competition, earning each member a Microsoft Surface tablet and a trip to Microsoft’s world headquarters.

“It was pretty fun to work on,” said Winkler, a senior computer science major and sole coder for the  Safe Trek mobile app and companion web application. “We were just taking a lot of current technologies that are out there and then merging them together in sort of a new way.”

The app works by allowing the user to activate a button on their smartphone’s touch screen in any situation where they feel unsafe. The app responds with a small vibration and activates a GPS signal to map the user’s movement. The user holds down the button until they feel safe enough to let go, and are then given ten seconds to enter a secret PIN. If the PIN is not entered, the phone connects to a local dispatch center where police can communicate with the user in-app, as well as track the phone’s whereabouts in real time.

Zach Winkler

Zach Winkler

“I used to work for New Student Programs,” said Beattie, a senior business major, “and the number one question parents would ask is ‘How do I know my student is going to be safe when I send them to Mizzou?’ That was the challenge we were faced with.”

Safe Trek is the team’s response to the blue light system implemented around campus, which costs $65,000 per year to operate and has been widely viewed as ineffective at providing an instant, accessible solution for students who feel unsafe.

“Our idea is to get Mizzou on board with Safe Trek,” said Winkler. “The fire chief is really excited about getting it implemented into their dispatch center [in Columbia], so that’s pretty much guaranteed if we can get enough users to install it.”

The team’s first push will be at the upcoming MU Summer Welcome rush. MUPD is already anticipating implementing the application once it’s been finalized.

“We’re working really hard to get it ready by June for Summer Welcome to push it out to all the incoming freshmen,” said Winkler, who served as programmer for the Safe Trek project. “We also need to get everything packaged so we can distribute it to other universities as well.”

The app will be made available on the iOS and Android platforms as well, after its Windows 8 debut.

“I’ve done a lot of mobile application and web application development over the past four years,” said Winkler. “I’ve been doing stuff like this for a long time, so Safe Trek was mostly pretty easy.”

Winkler was also the lead developer for Project Scope, the winning project for the 2012 RJI Student Competition. Safe Trek was Winkler’s first project on the Windows 8 platform, but will be his last project as an MU student.

“I have a job out in silicon valley at Intuit that I start in August, so that’s sort of the deadline for me. We have to get everything done and packaged so we can have it ready to distribute to other universities by then.”

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