Researcher’s App Will Let Students Call In an Emergency Via Videophone

Calling the campus police to report a crime may soon go multimedia. Researchers at the University of Maryland at College Park are developing an app for cellphones that will let students stream video and audio from the scene to help police improve their response.

Ashok Agrawala, a professor of computer science at the university, is working on a the smartphone app—called Video 911—which will enable 911 callers to stream sights and sounds from the scene to dispatchers. The emergency app will also draw on GPS and other location technology available in many phones to pinpoint the call source, then use surveillance cameras around the university to get a comprehensive picture of what’s happening on the ground. In addition, dispatchers will broadcast the information to first responders watching live video feeds on laptops en route to the scene. All this, Mr. Agrawala said, “at the touch of one button.”

Mr. Agrawala started the project three years ago with help from graduate students and colleagues in the computer-science department, in response to a spike in crime on the College Park campus. The team worked with the University of Maryland Police Department to develop an emergency-response system that would use advanced smartphone technology already in the hands of many students, professors, and staff members.

“Our communities on campus are very savvy using apps and technology to communicate,” said Maj. Jay Gruber, assistant chief of police at the University of Maryland. “We see this as a next logical step of getting information from those mobile apps into our call centers.”

Mr. Gruber said the app would provide officers with invaluable context before they arrive on the scene. “Instead of just telling us what you see,” Mr. Gruber said, “show us what you see.”

Mr. Agrawala has finished laboratory trials of the app and is hoping to test the system at the university once he can raise the estimated $150,000 it would cost for a campuswide rollout. Project developers and the police department are now searching for grant money—both inside and outside the university—to get the project off the ground, and have sought the support of cellphone providers. “I’m chomping at the bit to get this thing operational,” Mr. Gruber said. “I honestly think it’s going to change the way that 911 information is received across the country.”

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