People Just Won't Give Up on Awful Neighborhood Apps

SketchFactor is the latest in a series of user-experience-driven mapping apps with the distinct smack of genteel paranoia. 

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SketchFactor

Another day, another tone-deaf neighborhood innovation. Let's call them poortals: apps designed to help the privileged avoid the poor.

SketchFactor, which launches on Friday, is the latest in a seemingly endless series of misguided navigation apps. Like many of its predecessors, SketchFactor crowdsources user experiences to compile a sketchiness rating for neighborhoods in several large metro areas. And like nearly all of its predecessors, SketchFactor appears to suffer from some fatal flaws.

SketchFactor's creators, Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington, spoke about their app with Crain's New York in the runup to its iTunes debut. In the interview, McGuire related the product's origins in her uncomfortable experience living in Washington, D.C. Both creators are white and seemingly well off, having quit their jobs in Washington to move to New York to pursue the app with independent funding. Optically, the whole thing is a mess: a safety app built by white startuppers to help smartphone users avoid "sketchy" areas.

That's a small problem with SketchFactor, though, and one that might be overcome in other circumstances. The bigger issue is baked into the cake: This app depends in large part on the wholly subjective judgments of its entirely anonymous and self-selecting user group, whose impressions about what makes a neighborhood unsavory are unreliable at best. 

In certain ways, SketchFactor improves upon the poortals that came before it. (I'm sticking with that word.) When it launched in 2013, GhettoTracker was almost immediately pulled offline following a torrent of outrage over the name. But the app reemerged later that afternoon as Good Part of Town (it was killed the next day). Even in its scrubbed form, Good Part of Town presupposes that there is a Ghetto to be Tracked, and that geocoded crime statistics alone cannot tell users where that might be.

SketchFactor presents itself as blissfully, almost hopefully, unaware of what its users will do with the thing. "Just saw a guy dancing in the street," reads the sample tattle on the home page. "Seemed friendly...no pants. SketchFactor: 2." That one might merit a police report, though the twee wording sounds more like a tweet or a text. But are users really expected to submit or check in for encounters that aren't sketchy? "Saw a golden retriever with a blond couple," is a fearful report I expect no one to make. "The small plates options on this block are only decent."

Instead, the app fuels (and is fueled by) a paranoid style of navigation, one in which crimes of opportunity lurk in surroundings that (white, well-to-do) people deem as unfamiliar or disorderly. It's similar in philosophy to a popular approach to policing, one that recent research has demonstrated to be both biased and ineffective. Jamelle Bouie, a writer for Slate and a friend, has written recently about how policing "broken windows"—that is, seeking out and cracking down on minor offenses in order to prevent major ones—is both a waste of police resources and a driver in the super-incarceration of black and Latino residents.

McGuire told Crain's that SketchFactor could in fact be used to report racial profiling: "As far as we're concerned, racial profiling is 'sketchy' and we are trying to empower users to report incidents of racism against them and define their own experience of the streets."

And yet, that's not the likeliest outcome for SketchFactor. Racial profiling isn't "sketchy"—that's the wrong word to use if the goal is to build an app to stop profiling. Racial profiling is the weaponizing of "sketchy," and it results in the persecution of minorities.

Now, I'll eat my hat if I'm proven wrong: Maybe users in Park Slope or Los Feliz or 14th Street will hop on SketchFactor to report whenever a cab won't stop for a black passenger. But if the developers wanted to build that app, they'd've built that app. Or an app to shame street harassers. Or an app with a stated purpose.

Instead, SketchFactor's makers left it vague—"SketchFactor is exclusively focused on improving city exploration on foot"—leaving it to users to fill in the blank later with whatever associations "sketchy" brings to mind, pre-absolving themselves of responsibility for the soft misuse that is virtually inevitable. The whole thing just seems... what's the word I'm looking for....

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.