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Crime-Avoidance App Accused Of Racism

SketchFactor Mugged By Criticism

If you've ever walked a little faster down a dimly lit street in a strange part of town, your keys held tight between your fingers and your eyes on every shadowy corner, then you may appreciate a new app which has nonetheless garnered no small amount of controversy.

SketchFactor, developed by Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington, uses crowd-sourced data to map ‘sketchy’ areas of cities, informing users which areas it may be safer to avoid or where the more dangerous spots of various neighbourhoods are.

The app has come under fire for its allegedly racist overtones and the perceived equating of ‘sketchy’ with predominately black areas, with Gawker running a report under the headline ‘Smiling Young White People Make App For Avoiding Black Neighbourhoods’ and The Independent feeling the need to invent a new adverb – ‘racistly’ – to describe the creation of the service.

The app functions by combining publicly available crime data with reports submitted by users about incidents which may not feature on official reports. Users in New York have noted certain areas with comments ranging from ‘A guy grabbed my ass’ to ‘Sketchy ice cream truck is really just a small bus painted over.’

Despite early controversy the app seems to be on the path to success, having already qualified as a finalist in the NYC BigApps competition with a first place prize of $20,000.

The charges levelled against the app – that it is inherently racist, that it’s absurd for two white yuppies to be deciding what an ‘acceptable’ neighbourhood is, that it champions the bland and uninteresting over the stimulating and diverse – seem to ignore two key points.

The first is that the actual developers have almost no say in what people’s judgements on various areas actually are. It seems unlikely that Ms. McGuire and Mr. Herrington are selectively choosing the crime data and user reports which support their pre-existing biases, and in that sense the app is perhaps better seen as a map of public perceptions of an area rather than a strictly danger-avoidance device. Perhaps if they had marketed it as an aid to home-buyers looking to avoid unsafe areas they may have had more success.

The second is a deeper problem about diversity in the world of technology and social media development. The recent reports from Facebook, Twitter, and others show a disturbing preponderance of young white men in all corporate and development levels, an issue which requires addressing industry-wide.

This is not to say that there is a complete absence of minorities in the world of digital media (one of the most notable being Tristan Walker of FourSquare, whose appointment was somehow not met with headlines of ‘Smiling Black Man Makes App To Tell People Where To Eat’) but they are few and far between. The world of social media is an idealistic one, with grand ambitions of using the internet as a device for levelling conceptions of race, gender, etc., and perhaps a more productive use of column inches would be to address the fundamental industry barriers to this rather than attacking an app which seems honestly devised to help people of any race not get stabbed by another person of any race.


Douglas is an English Literature graduate who has written about everything from music to food to theatre, now a content creator for Social Media Frontiers. No topic too large or too small. Follow him @DouglasAtSMF.

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Crime-Avoidance App Accused Of Racism Reviewed by Anonymous on Monday, August 11, 2014 Rating: 5
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