Many mobile apps let visitors rate restaurants, bars and tourist attractions on a five-star scale based on service, value or cleanliness, but a new app called SAFE-ROAM, created by College of Charleston students and graduates Noah Futch, Madison Gardner, Nicole Nelson and Tyler Smithhart will let users rate businesses on sensory triggers like noise and lighting and accessibility for patrons with disabilities.
Created through the college’s Impact X Startup Accelerator Program, the lightbulb moment came when a member of the team recalled that a family member with autism struggled to find places to eat and visit due to unknown sensory level triggers which could provide a stressful environment.
The team explored the feasibility of a crowdsourced rating and review app that would rank businesses using familiar star ratings on common sensory triggers and handicapped accessibility both outside and inside the business.
“A lot of children with autism have a sensitivity to loud noises and a lot of times parents will just opt stay in instead of going out and trying a new place because they’re not sure of the (sensory) environment,” said Noah Futch, chief executive officer. “The app will be laid out like any other platform like Yelp or OpenTable — asking 'what was your experience with the noise level?’ ‘What time of day did you go, what day did you go?’ Someone can leave a written review as well.”
The creators pitched SAFE-ROAM to investors at the end of the semester and won second place among 12 teams competing. SAFE-ROAM additionally won first place in the audience choice award and received $1,000 in seed money to the launch the business.
The SAFE-ROAM app is planning to officially launch in January 2023, aiming to help parents and caregivers confidently plan where to eat, shop or visit when they are unfamiliar with a location’s interior environment.
More than 200 people have already signed up to be notified for when SAFE-ROAM will officially launch.
The four co-founders have personally been populating the site and compiling ratings, visiting more than 400 businesses like restaurants, tourist attractions and bars in Charleston since the summer in order to build up the SAFE-ROAM database.
Some of their reviews are currently being posted on a blog and in an emailed newsletter.
“We took the summer to put our heads down and build it out and now we're excited to bring it to the market,” Futch said. “There were a lot of things we found (in relation to sensory issues) that I was naïve to. Some places are very loud, there are strobe lights, a lot of rooftop restaurants in Charleston don't have elevator access. Google will show what places have handicapped ramps in the front, but once you get inside, that could be a different story.”
While the app will rate Charleston-area businesses, the future goal is to expand SAFE-ROAM to other cities and embed the SAFE-ROAM sensory trigger data into mainstream business review platforms for a complete picture of the user experience.
“We think it can be dropped into almost any city in the U.S.,” Futch said. “We want this to be free for the user and we aren't doing any ad-driven revenue right now, but in the future, possibly license out our data to other sites. We want this to be on every app — if you go on Yelp, if you go on Tripadvisor — we want that to be the standard information that you see.”
Futch said patrons who don’t have identified disabilities can also use SAFE-ROAM to learn about a businesses’ indoor environment.
“This could be for people who like to go to quieter restaurants. We also found it could be used inversely, where some parents with children want to actually go to louder environments because they want their kids to feel free to roam and play.”
The co-creators are wrapping up the development of the app using the seed money and Futch said they are planning a fundraising effort in spring 2023 to maintain software development.
Futch said it’s important to keep the SAFE-ROAM branding accessible, informative and user-friendly.
“We want it to be a community,” Futch said. “We are trying to help relieve stress while helping everyone equally enjoy our beautiful cities.”