Michael Schnuerle and Eric Roland, the big brains behind YourMapper and evangelists for open data, rolled out SafetyCheck back in April. But it wasn’t until the app was featured on the Courier-Journal and WHAS this past week that the app climbed to number one on the iTunes nationwide Travel charts. SafetyCheck hovered there for a couple of days and has since dropped down to number 36.
Not too shabby for an app that only covers Louisville (right now) and costs $1.99 per download.
SafetyCheck was born during the February Code for America Hackathon where Roland and Schnuerle took first place and won $5000. At the Hackathon, co-sponsored by the Mayor’s office and city innovation director Ted Smith’s office, hackers were challenged to create a prototype or app that helps improve the quality of life in the city.
SafetyCheck uses the city’s open data crime statistics to generate a crime score for your location. The app shows a CrimeScore from 1 to 10 of your current safety level and the number of recent crimes in your area. The app uses geofencing technology instead of GPS data in order to preserve battery life. Even if the app isn’t open, SafetyCheck can alert you via push notification if you enter a high crime area determined by a CrimeScore threshold that you set.
The CrimeScore is determined by proprietary formula based on location, type of crime, and date, and standardized across the entire city. Schnuerle has recently tweaked the formula to make sure that citywide CrimeScores fall into something more resembling a bell curve. Crimes are attached to particular properties, so even if your home is technically a 0, if you’re surrounded by properties that are an 8, then your CrimeScore will be higher, like a 3.
Critics of the app say that crime and safety are impossible to quantify and that by putting a number on particular blocks or neighborhoods, you run the risk of stigmatizing certain neighborhoods.
“For the most part those neighborhoods are already stigmatized,” responds Roland. “If you live or work in a high crime neighborhood, you probably already know that.”
“And we also hope that we’re dispelling myths,” says Schnuerle. When he was interviewed for the Courier by Matt Frassica back in April (the article went to print this week), the two traveled to different parts of town to show some surprising CrimeScore results. For example, Cherokee Triangle rated higher (more dangerous) than the Smoketown construction site near what was once Sheppard’s Square public housing.
At one point Roland and Schnuerle considered marketing the app to the city thinking that the city may want to buy it and their services to provide this information to the public for free. Turns out the city isn’t a big fan.
Although the Hackathon in February was sponsored by the city, the judging panel consisted of entrepreneurs and investors. “We won the Hackathon because the people voted for it,” says Roland. “If the city had been voting on it we probably wouldn’t have won.”
Crime is one area where transparency and good intentions tends to bump up against politics.
According to Schnuerle, around fifteen other cities have the kind of open data available that can be used to populate the app. While some cities have their information in “weird formats,” says Schnuerle, San Francisco, D.C. and New York City are ready to go. He and Roland expect to roll out a second city within a month or so.
Each city will be purchased separately, either as an in-app purchase or as a separate app. They’re also considering charging a premium price for an expanded app that allows you to add new cities at no additional cost as SafetyCheck rolls them out.
Unfortunately, open data is restricted to only a few handfuls of cities, large and small. There’s no way that SafetyCheck could become a nationwide app.
But scaling the app into other cities should be relatively easy. All of the logistical work can be done from Louisville and doesn’t require boots on the ground in whatever city SafetyCheck is adding.
The challenge for expansion is going to be marketing in new cities, especially getting noticed by the mainstream media.
“It’s really hard to make money with apps, even if you’re number one,” says Roland.
Just this morning, in fact, Michelle Jones, the entrepreneur behind the much-beloved Menu & Hours app announced that she would not be expanding into other cities, and that she would withdraw Menu & Hours from the iOS and Google stores in two weeks.
Despite “overwhelmingly positive reviews” (disclosure: I’m good friends with Jones and definitely a member of the Menu & Hours fan club) Jones cited the labor-intensive nature of the app and revenue from Android sales that fell dramatically short of expectations as her reasons for retiring her plans.
For Schnuerle and Roland, the costs of creating SafetyCheck have been negligible because between the two of them they can perform all aspects of the app’s development. The only costs behind the app at this point are hosting fees which amount to less than $100 a month. When it comes time to roll out other cities, they say that they’re both willing to cut in a marketing person to promote the app and coordinate media coverage in other cities.
Before they roll out other cities, however, Roland plans to add new features to the app, most of which have been requested by users. New features will include the ability to search for a score by address and further ability to sort the crime data by category and date range.
While, as Roland says, you probably already know the safety level of the neighborhoods you work or live in, imagine how helpful the app would be when you’re visiting a city that you’re not familiar with. I, for one, can’t even begin to recount how many dicey situations my wanderlust has gotten me into while traveling.
Schnuerle and Roland believe the Louisville app will be especially helpful to tourists to our city and look forward to pushing it during major events like Idea Festival and Derby.