SketchFactor, racist or safety map?

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iol scitech aug 15 sketchfactor . Website screenshot

Washington - The neighbourhoods around the Washington's Navy Yard subway station teem with “homeless crackheads” and “aggressive street youths.”

Roving gangs shout insults at innocent pedestrians. Clusters of men on street corners catcall and panhandle. This is all documented to be true — at least, if you believe the reports on SketchFactor, a new iPhone app that allows users to input incidents of crime in an effort to create a crowdsourced safety map.

Little of that sounds familiar to 46-year-old Xavier Rah, a lifelong Washingtonian who lives in the neighbourhood with his wife and his son. Rah doesn't own a cellphone and has never heard of SketchFactor. And in his neighbourhood, where everyone knows everyone else's children and grandparents, where most people live in neat, semi-detached townhouses with postage-stamp lawns, he doesn't know much about “sketchiness,” either.

“It's a good city,” he said, looking out on the street. “I don't think any individual should have the power to plague a neighbourhood based on what they think.”

This is the critical dissonance at the core of SketchFactor, which launched nationally this month to accusations of racism and profiling. The app's stated purpose — to empower communities with information about crime and safety in their neighbourhoods — is hard to fault.

But a tone-deaf marketing campaign rife with overtones of socioeconomic and racial privilege, combined with the concerted efforts of Internet pranksters, trolls and satirists, have crippled SketchFactor and posed serious questions about the role of technology in addressing social ills. And the app's release comes at a time when race and community are at the centre of a national news story following the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black Missouri teenager who was killed by police, and the turbulent aftermath in his home town of Ferguson.

“It's hard to even find words to describe how I feel about this app,” said Amalia Deloney, the associate director of the centre for Media Justice. “It's atrocious. It's getting into really dangerous territory. And I think it represents everything that's wrong with technology: making it not for the many but for the privileged few.”

Case in point: You can only use SketchFactor if you have an iPhone, which — as Deloney points out — few low-income people do. After downloading the app, users can browse a map for reports of “sketchy” behaviour and share stories of their own.

As of Tuesday morning, nearly 2 000 SketchFactor reports had been filed in the District of Columbia, all given a rating between 1 and 5, with 5 being the most dangerous, or “sketchy.” These incidents submitted by users ranged from a homeless man at New York Avenue and I Street NW to a group of people loitering outside a supermarket to a suspicious run-in with police on the eastern end of the H Street corridor.

The downtown Farragut Square area — where one of the app's co-founders, Allison McGuire, worked until decamping to Manhattan, N.Y., to work on the app full time — collected a rating of 3 for two “weird guy” sightings. (Someone also complained of loud construction nearby.)

Those weird guys, if not the construction, were on McGuire's mind when she dreamed up the app as a Washington resident last year. A young woman in the big city, working first on Capitol Hill and, later, just north of Farragut Square, McGuire says she “kept hearing fun, strange and alarming stories of exploring the streets.” McGuire's background is in the progressive nonprofit sector — she has previously canvassed for same-sex marriage rights and drafted national security reform legislation — and she believed an app could pool everyone's street smarts, for everyone's good.

That refrain — that SketchFactor is for everyone, by everyone — is one McGuire repeats.

“SketchFactor is an empowerment tool for anyone, anywhere, at any time,” she told The Washington Post twice via email. “People choose how they use their technology. That's not up to us.”

But while McGuire's intentions may have been good, reality has proved more slippery. Early press on SketchFactor, published even before the app came out, savaged it as a platform for privileged yuppies to air their petty biases or, worse, avoid minorities entirely. The app's founders were accused of promoting racism and mocking poverty. Repeatedly, critics asked why they used the word “sketchy” — a vague, subjective term fraught with all kinds of cultural and socioeconomic judgments — rather than something more benign. After all, something that looks “sketchy” to a well-coiffed L.A. transplant such as McGuire might not look “sketchy” to someone like Xavier Rah, who has lived in Washington all his life.

Critics from Deloney to musician Questlove to sports talk-show host Bomani Jones also worried that SketchFactor could blacklist entire neighbourhoods or communities — like a bad Yelp review, but for entire city blocks. And that, activists say, makes it a tool of disempowerment, not the other way around.

“In the short term, maybe it helps you avoid a certain block with a lot of street harassment,” said Karen Gregory, a sociologist who has lectured extensively on technology and urbanism. “But in the long term, it's changing how you participate in a neighbourhood, how you comport yourself, who you talk to . . . . The bigger story is that we're relying on data to inform our social interactions.”

The data involved aren't quite accurate, either: A comparison of the available SketchFactor reports for Washington and actual crime data from the Metropolitan Police Department revealed few clear overlaps. (McGuire said the app incorporates public crime data in its “back end,” which is not visible to a casual user.)

And because SketchFactor does not screen or moderate incident reports before they're filed, it's all too easy to make things up. One user reported a fictional murder from Netflix's “House of Cards,” while another slapped a Crate & Barrel in Arlington, Va., with a “sketchy” rating.

“Crate & Barrel may be financially dangerous if you want a $2 000 table,” joked Jessica Roman, 36, an Arlington doctor who sat outside the store drinking iced tea Monday afternoon. (Spotting a bee near her drink, she added, “That's the scariest thing here.”)

But McGuire and co-founder Daniel Herrington have no plans to change the app in light of the criticism they've received. In an emailed statement to The Washington Post, McGuire said she was “proud of the product” and “excited” to see people use it; in tweets dating back almost a year, she certainly sounds convinced that SketchFactor could help people — marginalized people, in particular. When a transgender teen was stabbed on a subway train in late July, McGuire said online that her app could have helped. She also tweeted, long before the app's controversial launch, that it could be of use to women who face catcalling and street harassment, or any user who wants to document problems with police.

“My career is dedicated to empowering communities,” McGuire said in an email, later adding: “Communities know their issues better than anyone else. We provide the technical data to help solve the issues they face.”

That doesn't comfort people such as 25-year-old Grace Minus, who lives in Congress Heights in southeast Washington. The only SketchFactor review of Minus' neighbourhood gives it a 5, for “dangerously” sketchy: A user claims he was “followed and attacked by two males” there.

“You hear people say it's really ghetto,” Minus admitted, but she didn't think that reputation should drive visitors away.

“I try hard not to be prejudiced,” she said. “I think people need exposure to different people.” - Washington Post

* Washington Post staff writers Karen Chen and Victoria St. Martin contributed to this report.

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