SAN DIEGO – Catching up with Nina Barnett might prove difficult on most days. The UNC-CH junior drama and physics major (with a mathematics minor) is spending this semester at Kings College in London, while also participating in Google web entrepreneur workshops there in her free time. Luckily, Barnett was travelling back to the U.S. this week to present at a San Diego education technology summit that happens to overlap with another obligation at a UNC apprenticeship program in San Francisco.
She admits that a big reason for her hectic schedule is the major undertaking of developing and growing her own app, a primary focus in the midst of the myriad involvements above. From its start less than two years ago, campus safety app “Grooop” has continued to catch fire along with her schedule because, as Barnett says, she “loves staying busy, I guess.”
Grooop was officially launched in August 2017 and has users in around 10 campuses across the U.S., and now in Europe. The free app combines safety and social media by letting users create groups of friends and family that can be easily updated with their status and location in a non-invasive way.
Barnett says that she first had the idea in high school at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh where she was the self-described “mom” of her friend group, and that she continued to seek the balance between safety and fun once she got on campus in Chapel Hill. She says, “You know in college, you feel invincible, but you’re not. And after a few of my friends – both girls and guys – found themselves in some tough situations that year, I just felt that safety was something that needed to be easily incorporated into our daily lives, not only after something [tragic] happens.”
The app, designed by Durham-based software company Smashing Boxes, was developed with that daily utility and students’ ease-of-use in mind. Barnett says she knew that her friends were hesitant to download many of the most popular safety apps available because of the significant amount of data used to operate them. Her idea was to create a way for users to avoid the constant, and often unnecessary, tracking those apps offered, and instead, allow for status updates and requests on demand. Users can create a lock-screen widget and do not have to have the app actively open to use.
New users first create friend groups and establish “safe zones” – familiar places, their dorm, friends’ apartments, their jogging route, etc. While not listing their exact location, if a user updates their status in one of these zones, they are listed as “Good.” If they are elsewhere and update their status, users are listed as “Out and About,” and if they are ready to leave a location and would like to find a friend to accompany them, they can update their status to “Ready to Go.” Friends within the group can also receive an “Alert” status update, which indicates a more urgent situation, and are offered the option to immediately call, text or email the sender. A friend may request a user’s location at any time, and the user can accept the request to be located on a map.
Barnett says that her primary goal is to turn safety from a “scary” topic into something that is simply a part of moving through daily life, using this technology toward a meaningful purpose. She points to its use not only on college campuses, but for any age student or family member with a phone, noting that Grooop could virtually “eliminate the stigma of the helicopter parent.” The app is currently free, which is something Barnett says is a priority right now. “I just want to see the stats [on campus incidents] go down, and not just have created a trendy app. It is for the users, and we hope to continue to build that base.”