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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Nashua company’s ‘citizen alerts’ smartphone apps touted at Statehouse

CONCORD – New technology can warn people of the big disasters, such as a gunman rampaging on the loose, a tsunami bearing down on a city or a cyclone churning toward the center of town.

But Manchester police, who adopted a new citizens alert system created by a Nashua company, have found mundane but still valuable uses for the downloadable smartphone app.

The Ping4 program was demonstrated Monday at the Statehouse. Gov. John Lynch, company officials and the Manchester police chief were present to promote the service.

Ping4’s “citizens alerts” apps are being used by more than 30 police departments across the country, said Jim Bender, the Nashua-based company’s CEO.

Recently, there was a spate of thefts from cars parked in the Mall of New Hampshire parking lot, Manchester Police Capt. Nick Willard said.

Police calculated that 67 percent of thefts from cars in the city occurred in the mall’s parking lot, and of those, 85 percent of the cars were unlocked, Willard said.

Police used the new Ping4 app to create a “geo fence” around the parking lot, Willard said.

Smartphone owners in the parking lot received a “ping,” meaning that smartphones with the app downloaded got an alert from police to make sure owners’ car doors were locked.

Thanks to that initiative – and more traditional, low-tech methods of fliers stuck on dashboards – thefts from autos fell by 40 percent, Willard said.

Normally, the service costs $5,000 a year for small towns and as much as $25,000 a year for cities of more than 1 million residents, said Mike Welts, a company vice president.

Manchester was provided the service for free, Welts said, as a way to help promote the Ping4 in its home state, Welts said.

Ensuring public safety is a primary function of government, Lynch said.

There is very little violent crime in New Hampshire, which he described as the “safest state” in the nation.

“That doesn’t happen by accident,” Lynch said.

It is a credit to law enforcement, which is always looking for new technologies, such as the citizen alert system, he said.

“I’m very pleased also that this was developed in New Hampshire,” Lynch said.

“We’ve operated literally as a virtual company for two years now,” Welts said.

Ping4 Inc. soon will have a home, at 20 Cotton St. in Nashua.

A difference between Ping4 and other citizen alert systems is what officials call its “hyper-local” function. The alert goes out to smartphones within a defined geographical location, not where the phone owners live.

For example, say there’s a chemical spill on a highway. The alert can be sent to all smartphones near the location, even if the phone owner lives out of the area and is just driving through at the time, officials said.

Of course, owners will have had to download the app to their cellphones. Part of the press event at the governor’s office was to encourage smartphone owners to do just that, officials said. The technology is available for iPhones and Androids and is in development for BlackBerrys, company officials said.

The phone sends out an audio alarm to “wake up” hibernating phones, company officials also noted.

The benefit in warning people is obvious.

Bender cited three examples: The gunman who killed 70 people at a summer camp in Norway in 2011, the Japan tsunami of last March, and the recent deadly Midwest tornados.

In all cases, people in the path of the disasters could have been warned by the app, Bender said.

Another use is engaging the public’s help in capturing a suspect. For example, a “geo fence” could be established around an area where a burglary was reported, and citizens there could be asked to keep an eye out for the suspect, Manchester Police Chief David Mara said.

“We can put a ‘geo fence’ around a particular area in real time,” Willard said.

Manchester police would limit its use to issues of public safety, Mara said.

“We certainly don’t want to inundate the public with everything we do,” he said.

For more information or to download the app to a smartphone, visit http://ping4.com.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or pmeighan@nashuatelegraph.com.