When Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington created their app ‘SketchFactor’, their purpose was to equip users with a mechanism which would enable them to get around their city as safely as possible. Using a mixture of crowdsourcing information and statistical crime rates, the app generates the safest routes for users to take in order for them to avoid any uncomfortable or unpleasant scenarios. Its premise seems reasonable enough, especially to those unfamiliar with their surroundings or with concerns about their neighbourhood. But before the app even became available to download on iTunes, McGuire and Herrington found themselves at the receiving end of a lot of serious accusations and an onslaught of complaints in relation to them being racists; it would seem that the app avoids ethnic areas in favour of areas with a predominantly white population. The main source of offence comes from the choice of name, which many people associate with racist, classist and homophobic connotations. But with the vast majority of crime occurring in urban areas in the USA, any software attempting to determine the safest routes through the use of crime statistics was always destined to come under fire. What sets this app apart from others is that it hinges on user input, and if areas are being labelled ‘sketchy’ it is predominantly down to the opinions of people who live there, highlighting deeper societal issues and making this a more complex issue.

The name ‘SketchFactor’ links the app directly to the age old prejudice of labelling neighbourhoods ‘sketchy’ –  a term used to describe areas that make people uneasy for any particular reason. It is in this context that McGuire chose the name, as it includes any and every possible concern someone could have about their area. But sceptics feel that this term can easily be misused to include reservations about people’s ethnicity, class, gender or sexuality. This is the main argument against McGuire and Herrington, with most critics claiming that it is offensive to label a neighbourhood ‘sketchy’ because, if interpreted incorrectly, the term suggests that the area is questionable because of the people who live there. It highlights the divide between pockets of society, and people have focussed on McGuire’s middle-class status to draw this out further, criticising her for her insensitive remarks about no longer feeling unsafe because she now lives in an affluent part of New York as opposed to a poorer part of Washington DC.

No one is disputing that anyone can feel uncomfortable in their neighbourhood, and this can be the result of anything from rubbish not being collected to street harassment. SketchFactor is a platform that people can use to highlight their concerns and help prevent others from experiencing the same as them. But because the app relies on user input, even more so than crime statistics, the areas deemed ‘sketchy’ are largely a matter of personal opinion. If users were to interpret the term wrongly it is impossible to ignore the possibility that people could use the app to promote feelings of racism and xenophobia, as opposed to using it for positive purposes.

I do not think that McGuire or Herrington are racist or classist, but I also do not think they are as naive as they appear to be making out; the app’s name carries with it a very high risk of causing offence, and by refusing to give adequate statements, their response to the claims leave a lot to be desired. Despite releasing a statement on the app’s homepage; “It’s no secret. We’ve seen the negative press. Setting the record straight: SketchFactor is a tool for anyone, anywhere, at any time. We have a reporting mechanism for racial profiling, harassment, lowlighting, desolate areas, weird stuff, you name it. When people actually download the app, they see that this is truly a tool for everyone”, their lack of interaction with the press is part of the reason why many still do not trust their assertions. I do think that the app reveals a lot about societal attitudes towards communities in their areas and, if anything, this is what needs to be focussed on, because a concentrated judgement of prejudices can be damaging. The app does not seem to be aiding communities but, on the contrary, appears to be highlighting more cracks within them.


About the author

Avni Bhagwan

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Third year History student from London with an unhealthy obsession with penguins :)