woman walking home alone
Students at the University of Michigan have seen their personal safety app Companion grow tremendously, with tens of thousands now using the app to stay safe at night iStock

Tens of thousands of people around the world are now using a free personal-safety mobile app that allows friends to virtually walk you home at night. The Companion app, created by five students from the University of Michigan, enables users to request a friend or family member to keep them company virtually and track their journey home via GPS on an online map.

Although they can do so, the friend or family member does not need to have the Companion app installed, which is available for both Android and iOS. The user can send out several requests to different phone contacts in case people are not available to be a companion or not with their phones at the time.

Those contacted then receive an SMS text message with a hyperlink in it that sends them to a web page with an interactive map showing the user walking to their destination. If the user strays off their path, falls, is pushed, starts running or has their headphones yanked out of their phone, the app detects these changes in movements and asks the user if they're OK.

If the user is fine, they press a button on the app to confirm within 15 seconds. If they do not press the button, or a real emergency is occurring, the Companion app transforms the user's phone into a personal alarm system that projects loud noises to scare criminals from the scene, and gives you the option to instantly call the police.

Contacting university campus police

As the app was originally designed to aid students in walking home at night across university campuses, if the user calls 911, the app will also alert the person's relevant university campus safety department within the US, but this feature is only applicable to universities that have signed up to work with Companion.

At the same time, the app will send an alert to the contact who is keeping you company, and that person can choose to call the police and give them your location, as well as call you to find out if you are OK.

People in other countries can still use the app by entering their phone number, together with country code. In an emergency, the app will call the police and send SMS text messages to chosen companions.

"We've had a lot of people outside the US downloading the app. Since we launched, we've had dozens of emails from people in the US, as well as many other countries like the UK, Belgium, France and Norway," Lexie Ernst, co-founder of the Companion app and a senior at the University of Michigan who is majoring in business, with a minor in computer science told IBTimes UK.

"Both men and women from all demographics have emailed us saying they'd love to use the app, lots of parents want to use the app for their children, and some people want their elderly parents to use it too to make sure they don't get lost."

Working out where people feel most unsafe

Companion personal safety mobile app
The Companion app asks you to confirm you are OK if the phone is dropped or the user is pushed or falls. Users can also call the police or set off an alert system that makes a loud noise to dissuade animals or attackers Companion

On top of calling the police and alerting their chosen companion, users can also select an 'I am nervous' button in the app, which tells the app where and when they feel unsafe. Companion's creators said that in just one week after launching the second version of their app, they collected 500 incidents where students across multiple university campuses felt unsafe.

The team plans to collate this data and provide the information with campus security so that they can be aware of areas where trouble might occur, and in future, users will be able to specify why exactly they feel unsafe. "Many people aren't even aware that their school has a campus safety department. In future, people can specify what makes them nervous and why, and we hope to open a dialogue between campus safety departments and students," said Ernst.

Many people have emailed the Companion team asking them to hook up their local campus security team to the service, and Companion is currently working with several big universities around the US.

As the app is meant to remain as a free product for users, the creators are monetising the app by working with universities. They hope to eventually connect every single university's campus police in the country to their app, as well as eventually connecting local police departments and emergency responders.