[Editor’s note: Berkeleyside is teaming up with Wildfire to push out crime news notifications through Wildfire’s mobile app. Download the app and enable push notifications to get quick alerts about public safety news, and make sure to follow Berkeleyside on Twitter and Facebook for the latest information.]
With public safety news, speed can be of the essence. That’s why four recent UC Berkeley graduates have created a crime-alert app that lets people share information quickly and easily right from their phones about potentially dangerous situations.
The mobile app, which is free to download, is called Wildfire. It allows anyone to post information from their cell phones about crimes, car crashes, fires and other incidents of concern. For those familiar with the Waze app — where users share real-time traffic info — it’s a similar concept but it’s focused on public safety.
Wildfire launched earlier this year but, now that students are coming back to the UC Berkeley campus for the fall semester, its founders are ramping up efforts to spread the word about its existence.
It’s not just for students. Anyone with a mobile phone can use it, though most of the app’s users — and most of its posts — are in the Berkeley area. The more people who use it to post about incidents, the more robust the app will become.
“There’s literally nothing like it,” said Caroline Winnett, executive director of UC Berkeley’s SkyDeck, which selected Wildfire earlier this summer to work in its startup accelerator as part of its six-month mentorship program. “There is no other app that does what Wildfire is trying to do, and it’s a much-needed solution that can really impact public safety.”
For those who simply want to see what’s happening around them, there’s a map with pins that show the locations of public safety incidents. Those who want to post alerts can easily do so too. The app, which is available for iPhone and Android platforms, sends push notifications to mobile phones so its users can quickly learn about public safety reports. There’s also a feature to allow emergency contacts to receive text alerts about incidents, even if they don’t have the app themselves.
Wildfire CEO and programmer Hriday Kemburu said he got the idea for the app last fall when two people — one of whom had on a ski mask and another who was wearing gloves — approached him in what he believed was a near-mugging on the Cal campus. (He quickly approached another group of students and was able to avert the threat.) Kemburu called police, but then wanted to let more students know about the suspicious pair.
Kemburu stayed at the scene to alert other students in person, and also posted about the robbery attempt on Facebook in a group used by students to communicate.
That post reached hundreds of people, and some of them got in touch with Kemburu to tell him how much they appreciated his announcement. But, even though the post reached many more people than he might have been able to inform in person, Kemburu said he knew there had to be a better way. On a campus of some 30,000 students, a Facebook post alone wasn’t going to cut it.
Kemburu said he wanted to create a system that was “not just based on your friends or who you follow or you being online at that moment.” That’s essentially how Wildfire was born.
It’s not that other safety alert systems don’t already exist. But all of them have their limitations, Kemburu found. UC Berkeley has a text message system called WarnMe for alerts, but it’s not often used. Both UCPD and the Berkeley Police Department use the Nixle crime alert notification system. But those notices can be infrequent and may be delayed by hours or even days. Those systems also rely on people making reports to police, which they don’t always do.
Other apps offer “mobile panic button” functionality, or allow friends to track each other on their walks home. Wildfire takes a different approach.
Kemburu and his three co-founders — Tim Hyon and Jay Patel, both programmers, and Vinay Ramesh on the business side — wanted to create a crime alert app that could function in real time, rely on crowdsourced information, and allow two-way communication between those posting alerts and others in the community.
“It’s not about your friends and it’s not about who you follow on social media,” Kemburu said. “If something happens around you, you should know about it.”
They also, as four men creating the app, “spent a lot of time trying to figure out what safety means to different people” and wanted to create an app that could help “create a safe environment that also didn’t hinder anyone’s safety.”
Right now, posts come from a combination of community users, Wildfire staffers and local news partners, including Berkeleyside. To verify information, and decide whether or not to push out an alert to the community, the team checks posts against what is released by authorities and the local media, too. The posts do not automatically alert authorities about crimes, though the team is looking into whether that could one day be possible.
The Wildfire team has seen how powerful the app can be. Last semester, after a student posted about how she almost got kidnapped near campus, “entire sororities” were downloading the app, Kemburu said.
And, when protesters interrupted a campus discussion at Zellerbach, an audience member who got a Wildfire alert about the reason for the furor was able to tell others what was going on even before the protesters had reached that row in the auditorium.
The app launched in February and has more than 2,000 users despite having done no advertising. Now, the team is working on expanding the user-base through flyers and other outreach. Wildfire has also met with UCPD to see about how it could officially team up with the University of California.
Though those discussions are still ongoing, Kemburu said all incoming students this semester will receive a notice about Wildfire in information packets on their beds.
So far, word of mouth has been the biggest contributor to the app’s growth, he said.
“As long as we continue to do our job really well, to help keep people informed so they can make safer decisions, they’re spreading the word of our app and what we’re doing for us,” said Kemburu.
The team plans to target college communities for its growth, but wants residents, business owners and other community members to use Wildfire, too. Parents of students — who may be out of the area but still want to know what’s happening locally — are another target group.
Initially, when the app launched, it was limited to Berkeley. But over the summer, the team decided to make the app available to people all over the world. Last week, someone used it to post information about a forest fire in Bend, Oregon.
There are also users in San Francisco, Oakland, New York and Los Angeles, among many other cities. Those communities, for now, are small, but Kemburu said the team is keeping an eye on where people are using Wildfire and doing what it can to support them.
One of the users in LA is Kent Chen, who graduated from UC Berkeley in May. Chen, who had known Kemburu since freshman year, became one of Wildfire’s first “super users,” posting regularly about incidents he would come across in the Southside neighborhood near campus. Among them, police activity at People’s Park, road construction at Warring Street, and a road closure due to a car stuck on power line.
“Wildfire serves an important purpose as it allows for all news (both from verified media and from local users) to be centralized in one app,” he said. “The fact that people are able to view, share, and comment on the posts is significant since it made me feel as though I’m contributing to helping to keep others safe in my community through the Wildfire platform.”
Chen said he likes the real-time functionality of the app; one evening, he learned through the app’s push notifications about a bike crash near campus, and was able to plan another route home. He said he could see Wildfire taking off, especially with the app-using millennials of his generation.
In June, the Wildfire team was accepted into UC Berkeley’s SkyDeck accelerator to help it get to the next level of development through the SkyDeck mentorship program. (Read more about SkyDeck on Berkeleyside.) The team is focusing on growing its user base, refining the product and preparing to pitch the app to venture capitalists in November.
SkyDeck Executive Director Winnett said the Wildfire team members had impressed the selection committee with their smarts, their focus and their intentionality about getting their startup off the ground. Wildfire is among about 30 startups in the current SkyDeck cohort.
William Allison, UC Berkeley’s chief technology officer, said he initially heard about the app from several students, then later met Wildfire’s founders when they were accepted into SkyDeck.
“To me the unique aspect of Wildfire is the bridging of public safety broadcast functionality, crowdsourced input, and linkage to media. It helps people understand what’s going on in their local area when they’re out walking around,” he said. “The ability to offer a pubic safety app with an engaged user base is useful in getting out important safety messages, and for letting people share their observations as they are out and about.”
Since its launch, Wildfire has rolled out a number of new features. They include the ability to follow locations of interest, comment on and share posts, and set “emergency contacts” who will get text notifications of any alerts near that user. The app also includes a list of safety resources, and a way to contact the Wildfire team with questions and suggestions. Posts can include photos as well as links to more information.
Said Kemburu: “Our goal is to be the go-to safety app. We want to help students, parents, and anyone who feels unsafe to be better informed of what’s happening around them and to feel safer in the process.”
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