Sketch Factor, Redlining Neighborhoods Near You!

Redlining, the practice of charging more for services or denying jobs to people in particular areas, was defined by sociologist John McKnight in the late 1960s. It was used to describe areas where banks refused to invest based on the red lines drawn on maps that demarcated areas of low-income minority families. The United States has experienced significant growth since McKnight’s coining of the term; however, redlining is still a debilitating presence in the fight against racism today.

Over the years, redlining has become less discernable but it still influences the levels of interactions between people in society. Today, redlining is occurring under the mask of new forms of technology, either intentionally or unintentionally, that pride themselves on accessibility and customer care.

Sketch Factor, a crowdsourcing application for smartphones created by Allison McGuire and Daniel Harrington, has recently emerged as one of the clearest reinforcements of redlining in current times. The purpose of the app is to share user testimonies and descriptions of neighborhoods to provide background information on a particular area. This is intended to increase safety and comfort while venturing into regions that are unfamiliar or foreign. Users are given options to rate cities or areas based on their degree of “sketchiness” which is solely based on the user’s perception of the area that they are in. As one might assume, similarly to the majority of critics, the app has implicit racial biases and discriminatory views that are perpetuated to all users of the apps. The video below touches on the flaws in the apps intended consequences, which is what I plan on diving into with greater detail.

As seen in the video below, the application appears to be predominately centered on the wandering white protagonist who looks to the app for reassurance or warning. There is one person of color in the video, and he is portrayed in a comical manner. The video served as a teaser for the app before its release, and though the creators claim to have no intention to circulate racist or classist sentiments, the choice of actors present a different viewpoint.

The creators of the app feel justified in it’s probable correlation with racist beliefs simply because they feel as though they have made efforts to encourage people to not be racist when using the app. The creators stated that if someone found themselves in a neighborhood with people that looked different than they did, it would be important to wait and report “sketchy” rankings after seeing what actions were taken by the other person or group of people. If they began to harass you, then it would be okay to report the neighborhood is sketchy, but that should only be based off of actions as opposed to predetermined feelings. Although this sounds like a way to combat overtly discriminatory acts, in reality it’s impossible to actually keep track of whether users are detaching their inherent beliefs from their actual experiences. Allison McGuire argued that as far as she and Daniel are concerned, “racial profiling is ‘sketchy’ and [they] are trying to empower users to report incidents of racism against them and define their own experience of the streets.” However, that does not appear to be the situation that’s occurring on this app. According to an article by Kimberly Turner, “all of Atlanta is pretty sketchy” according to the app.

Atlanta’s Sketch Factor Zones

There are also instances where people have used the app in ways that incite anger such as in the image listed below. The app’s unintentional consequences are clear cases of redlining. People are encouraged to avoid areas that are considered to be “sketchy” by users who are predominately privileged white Americans. The result is racial segregation with encouraged stereotypical undertones.

In regards to the timeline, I plan on researching areas of Washington D.C, Chicago and Atlanta that are featured on the new application to determine how diverse inhabitants, which can be acquired through demographic databases. I would also look closely into areas that are dubbed “sketchy” by the app, so that I can investigate biases and correlations between predominately minorities filled communities and the communities that are described as sketchy. To add a layer to the analysis, I will also look at other examples of redlining such as Uber’s new delivery service (link) to shed light on other instances where smartphone apps have the ability to geographically label areas in a discriminatory fashion. Since the application has recently been released, I will approach the data from the app last to ensure that I have taken into account as much information as the crowdsourcing app has to offer at that time. My goal is to determine whether or not this app has the possibility to defy discrimination, an ideal expressed by its creators; and if it does, how will this influence our understanding of diversity and acceptance through technology?

Works Cited

Parkinson, Hannah J. “SketchFactor City App Sparks Accusations of Racism.” The Guardian. N.p., 12 Aug. 2014. Web.

Turner, Kimberly. “Controversial App Thinks All of Atlanta Is Pretty Sketchy.” Curbed Atlanta. N.p., 11 Sept. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014

“SketchFactor Teaser.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Schapiro, Rich. “Going to a Sketchy Neighborhood? New App Called SketchFactor Will Tell You.” NY Daily News. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Cueto, Emma. “SKETCH FACTOR APP IS RACIST — NOT ON PURPOSE, BUT THAT DOESN’T MAKE IT BETTER.” Bustle. N.p., 08 Aug. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

“SketchFactor: The New App Enabling Racism, One Neighborhood at a Time.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Murphy, David. “App That Crowdsources ‘Sketchy’ Areas Fights Charges of Racism.” PCMAG. N.p., 09 Aug. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014

Garcia, Arturo. “White Duo behind App to Avoid ‘sketchy’ Neighborhoods Is Shocked to Hear It’s Racist.” Raw Story. N.p., 07 Aug. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.


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