Posted on August 12, 2014

App That Crowdsources ‘Sketchy’ Areas Fights Charges of Racism

David Murphy, PC Mag, August 9, 2014

On paper, it sounds like a good idea: A smartphone app that uses crowd-sourced data to inform you of the more unsafe areas of your neighborhood. You might not need such a thing if you’ve lived in a particular area for a while, but it might be useful if you’re navigating a new city and have absolutely no idea where you should or shouldn’t go.

The problem? Allegations have been made that the app in question, Sketch Factor, is racist–unintentionally or otherwise.

“If the purpose of the app is meant to be about safety–real safety, not just perceived safety–then you’d think the app would rely on actual crime data, at least a little bit, as opposed to purely anecdotal reports. But no. The app will only tell you what ‘seemed sketchy’ to other people,” Bustle’s Emma Cueto writes. “And if we are to assume that most of these users are young white people with smart phones, then it isn’t long before people’s internalized biases […] start to rear their ugly heads.”

While anyone is free to report anything on SketchFactor that he or she perceives as “sketchy”–which can be anything from the presence of people on a street corner that an individual doesn’t particularly feel safe around to something as benign as poor lighting in a particular area–the app does pull in crime data for cities that offer it. As reported by the New York Daily News, Washington D.C. and Chicago are two such examples, though New York City is not.

“We’re hoping that an app like this can excite the city of New York into digitizing some of its crime data,” said the app’s co-founder, Allison McGuire, told the paper.

As for the allegations of racism, McGuire and the app’s other founder, Daniel Herrington, have been quick to address the issues on SketchFactor’s website.

“SketchFactor is a tool that can be used anywhere at any time by anyone. The app is not exclusive to privileged communities or tourists. Many of our users experience racial profiling, police misconduct, and harassment. We encourage all users to report this information. In addition, we partner with community organizations to ensure all members of the community have access to this app,” reads the app’s FAQ.