1. Economics
August 11, 2014

A controversial new app tells you where the “sketchy” parts of US cities are

By City Monitor Staff

Perhaps because the likes of CityMapper already have a monopoly on getting-you-places-quickly, the developers of new navigation apps seem to feel they need a quirky USP. First, there was this paper, released last month, proposing an app for “pleasant” routes through cities, even if that meant a longer walk.

And now there’s Sketch Factor, which, according to the app’s website, “empowers you to report sketch, vote on sketchy stories, and get walking directions”. What that means is that you can leave a testimonial about the horrible things that have happened to you in a particular area, and thus warn other users that they may prefer to stay the hell away.

On the face of it, the two ideas have a lot in common. Both rely on the idea that, when we’re walking somewhere, we care about more than just speed and distance: we want the walk to be pleasant; we want the walk to feel safe.

 But Sketch Factor, which went on sale on Friday, has already attracted criticism from commentators who think it could end up as little more than a forum for people to air racist views. Valleywag, for example, covered it under the headline “Smiling Young White People Make App for Avoiding Black Neighborhoods”, and claimed that sketchy

“is the term young white people use to describe places where they don’t feel safe because they watched all five seasons of The Wire”

The app’s creators, Daniel Herrington and Allison McGuire, are fervent that the app does not, in fact, condone racism. Its website lists rules of usage, and notes that: “Any racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise discriminatory posts will be deleted”. And, in an interview with Crain’s, a New York business magazine, McGuire argued that it could actually help victims of 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.”

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At the moment, you can only use the app in the US. But in an email, Herrington said they have plans to roll out to other countries. The developers are looking to incorporate other datasets – crime data, for example – into the app, too. This would, at least, offer information that’s a little more refined than Tripadvisor-esque reviews of different streets. 

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