SketchFactor and Unintended Consequences

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 by diving into the unintended consequences that the creators of the map may have overlooked. Though it is unclear if the creators were legitimately oblivious to the possible issues that might come to fruition due to their application, I will refer to these implications as unintended consequences because there is no evidence otherwise.

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 display a different viewpoint. The creators of the application, intentionally or not, are conveying messages with racial undertones for an application with the potential to reinforce stereotypes for entire regions within a state or city. The application already treads a thin line on the racial equality radar by means of its functions, and the choice of actors in the trailer lack the diversity necessary to promote an application like SketchFactor without an accompanying aura of racism.

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.” (Cueto) 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. These rankings show the highest levels of danger across the majority of Atlanta, but the picture below also exposes the unintended consequences of the application. The red faces, representative of the highest levels of sketchiness or danger, seem to be concentrated in clumps around certain neighborhoods. It is hard to believe that every person who ranked the area found it to be the same level of sketchiness as another random stranger. Users will undoubtedly avoid the areas with clumps of sketchiness even if there is no real sense of danger.


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. The image below causes controversy for multiple reasons. As referenced in the comment below the SketchFactor screenshot, the post describes the criminal as “a black” instead of continuing the phrase with a pronoun to clarify the sex of the assailant. The lack of a pronoun to determine if a female or male was involved in the incident presents the reader with the feeling that whoever wrote this post had the intention of sharing a sentiment to generalize and stigmatize a group of people. Additionally, one should question the relevance of including race at all in this post, given that the proposed goal of this application is to simply help people navigate and express sketchiness. According to the creator’s goals for the app, the post would have conveyed the same message without mentioning the race of the criminal, but instead it is included so that users will not only be aware that they might possibly get mugged, but they will be warned that there is added danger because the criminal or surrounding population is black.

Once again, Allison McGuire and Daniel Harrington argued of the equality of the application. Any one can utilize SketchFactor to report something that warranted a sketchy label. When confronted about nature of SketchFactor, the pair described the power that the application would have in terms of reporting cases of racism or racial profiling from the point of view of those being oppressed. The options for reporting, as seen below, fall into categories of catcalling, racial profiling, or something else. The creators did a great job of including racial profiling as one of the standard options, so it is hard to say that this application is intentionally offensive, but believing that this application would actually serve as a voice representing instances of racial profiling is naïve and idealistic.

Communicating sentiments of racial profiling on a mobile application is oversimplification at its finest. It would require an audience that is more committed to combatting racial discrimination and modern segregation than the audience that will be holding their iPhone in their hand to report a “sketchy” zone.

In a recent study, titled Minority Rights and Relations poll, 2,250 adults (ages 18 and over) were interviewed over the phone during the month of June in 2004. The sample was adjusted to contain data on non-Hispanic whites, blacks, and Hispanics that was representative of each of their proportions in the general population. The Minority Rights and Relations poll scrutinized American citizens’ belief in the prevalence of racial profiling, as well as whether such profiling is ever justified. As seen below, blacks and Hispanics believe that racial profiling is a lot more prevalent in society than their counterpart. In malls or store theft to be specific, 65% of the blacks reported widespread racial profiling, while on 45% of the whites believed that racial profiling was present in the same situation. This disparity between perceptions of racial profiling offers a challenge that SketchFactor might not ever be able to address. Members of society with enough white privilege, or any other sort of privilege that would allow them to elude the harsh realities seen recently in the cases of young, black males such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, remove themselves from the appalling racial tensions that are still prevalent in our society. It is easier to be blissfully unaware of racial profiling when you have never actually experienced the hardships of being profiled.

The poll did not cease after exposing the discrepancies mentioned above. Instead, the poll asked participants if they thought that the racial profiling was justifiable in three different situations. Shockingly, Hispanics tend to report in ways more similar to non-Hispanic whites than blacks. In regards to racial profiling for traffic stops, 31% of non-Hispanic whites believe that it is justifiable, while 23% of blacks and 30% of Hispanics expressed similar sentiments. For preventing theft in shopping malls, 24% of non-Hispanic whites justified racial profiling, while 19% of black participants agreed.

Complications with reporting racial profiling exist for a few reasons. As seen above, the members of society who are not experiencing discriminatory actions are detached from the problem. They are either fully unaware resulting from their lack of experience with such occurrences, or they are actively in denial due to their inability to empathize and imagine the hardships of a group of people who have historically experienced bigoted adversities. The members of society who admit that racial profiling is prevalent, despite being a member of a victimized race, mend one part of the problem, but their acceptance and justification of racial profiling exposes another gap in the bridge that we hope to create to connect all members of our society. If they aren’t convinced that racial profiling is unjustifiable, then how will we address this issue adequately?

The SketchFactor posts from New York demonstrate the playing field that users are experiencing. The post to the far left details a scenario that lacks any tangible danger, aside from the fact that the people standing outsides were “thugs” according to the poster and his three dogs. The ‘thugs” did nothing to scare or incite fear in the poster, and the post was likely only written because the user felt uncomfortable around males or females of a different race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. The second post describes “local public housing people” who are likely to be selling drugs, which is once again a situation where people and a neighborhood are labeled dangerous with out legitimate evidence. The diction and tone of this post implies that the user who posted this is a member of a higher socioeconomic status and the user is encouraging others to avoid the area. These represent examples of SketchFactor’s ability to encourage redlining. In relation to the idealistic benefit of the app mentioned by its creators, imagine being one of the “thugs” mentioned in this rating. Simply listening to music without interfering in the lives of others. How would the “thugs” use the application to counter the racial biases and profiling thrown their way without having knowledge of the post. The “thugs” might be able to notice a shift in pace or stride by a random person passing by, but they are not fully aware of the thoughts running through the minds of their prejudiced counterparts. This application gives privileged people even more of a privilege than before. Alternatively, consider the amount of attention dedicated to a post created by one of the “thugs.” If the “thug” were to post that a random individual exhibited tendencies of racial profiling, how many people do you think will believe the post or find it worthy of attention. How many people will decide to actually practice discretion with respect to the new information that they suddenly have access to? Sadly, as reinforced by the above mentioned poll, despite discussions and debates about racial discrimination and unjust policing, non-Hispanic whites still believe that racial profiling is not prevalent in most cases.

In addition to creating a stigmatized environment with racial boundaries and segregation, the mobile application has the propensity to encourage a method of policing known as broken window policing. According to a recent U.S. News post, broken window policing is a police tactic in which law enforcement officers focus on rooting out minor disorder as a way to prevent more serious crime.” (Sneed) Upon first glance, it might seem like policing in support of the broken window theory is an adequate approach to deter and decrease crimes in large cities. Countless studies have been conducted to support the claim, particularly focusing on the large decrease in crime seen in New York in the 1990s.

A study conducted in 2006 by Jens Ludwig and Bernard E. Harcourt revisits past studies on the topic.The authors, fully aware of the hindering influence of such policing methods, decided that revisiting the best available evidence from New York City about the influence of broken window policing would provide more discourse on the discriminatory factors that are inherent in its practice. They were able to collect a dataset that resembled the data used in the study by Kelling and Sousa, which was used to argue that conclusions drawn in support of the broken window policing strategy were not substantial enough to prove that other factors were not the cause of the decrease in crime rates seen in the 1990s. When inspecting data points closer, it was evident that the cities that experienced the greatest decline in crime rates were those that had previously had the greatest increase in crime during the 1980s. This rise and fall in crime was referred to as ‘Newton’s Law of Crime’ which essentially supports the idea that large scale increases in crime are often followed by large scale decreases in crime. However, even if one believes in these assertions and counter arguments to the previous studies on broken window policing, we are left with an alternative reason for decreases in crime that is still inconclusive in terms of highlighting the effects of broken window policing.

For that reason, the authors proceeded to investigate the findings through another avenue. Utilizing data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a closer inspection was granted due to the randomized experiment known as Moving to Opportunity (MTO). The Moving to Opportunity experiment focused on approximately 4,600 low-income families in public housing communities with high rates of crime who were then given housing vouchers to move into neighborhoods that were characterized by less violence and community unrest. This study collected data form as early as 1994 in five cities; luckily New York was one of them. In regards to analyzing the broken window policy, “the random assignment of families to neighborhoods in MTO helps overcome the problem of determining the causal effects of neighborhood disorder on individual criminal behavior that plagues most previous studies in this literature.” (Harcourt and Ludwig) People were moved from areas with a great deal of disorder, which was thought to have been a key influence on continued disorder or crimes, to affluent societies containing populations that coexisted with minimal disorder. The results showed a lack of evidence in support of the influence of current disorder on future disorder, which is the very principle that the broken window theory stands for. Policing minor incidents in areas already dubbed sketchy or disorderly didn’t necessarily result in a decrease in crime overall for that area.

This concept of policing according to the broken window theory does influence our society in a particular way. Mass incarcerations of minorities in communities with dense concentrations of minorities have been one of the few byproducts that we can actually accredit broken window policing strategies for. In and article featured on the American Civil Liberties Union’s website, Taylor Pendergrass, a senior staff attorney, states that broken windows policing has “led to mass incarceration, widespread civil rights abuses and severe and disproportionate consequence for America’s youth.” A troubling statement, no doubt, but zooming in on specific data points highlights a problem with decreased shock value depending on how removed you are from discussions of race. In 2011, the New York Police Department arrested more that 350,00 people for low-level marijuana offenses encouraged by broken windows law enforcement. Of those arrests, “eighty-six percent of people arrested for marijuana possession in New York City [were] black or Latino, even though these groups make up only a quarter of the city’s population,” and if that doesn’t shed light on the inequalities perpetuated by the policing strategy then maybe a little more should be shared. (Pendegrass) Maybe we’re looking for a reason to pull the race card. Could it be that blacks and Latinos are the only people in New York City with drugs on their person? Though supporters would love to communicate that ideology to the average citizen, government surveys showed that for young adults aged 18-25 whites consumed marijuana more than young blacks; the two groups consumed the drug at similar rates across all age groups. The disparity arises due to the methods of policing in varying neighborhoods, that different neighborhoods are policed.

The creators of this mobile application are either painfully oblivious of the possible consequences of their applications use or they harbor minimal empathy for those without ancestry similar to theirs. SketchFactor, as discussed above, has the power to create clear boundaries for areas that are considered ‘sketchy’ to users. These ‘sketchy’ neighborhoods, which tend to contain larger numbers of minorities are then avoided by the majority, while isolating minorities into pockets of cities. These areas may not be nearly as dangerous as they are made out to be, but fleeing white inhabitants endorse fear of specific areas, which then encourages others to avoid the area while spreading news that the area is not considered to be safe. The result is an isolated area with a bad reputation. As discussed above, areas with bad reputations tend to receive different treatment from authorities, so this application can influence the volume of mass incarceration for minorities.

A senior research fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, Seeta Pena Gangadharan, described the power of a tool like SketchFactor to encourage people to think further into what the application is capable of. The application has the power to create safe communities through the sharing of personal stories, but context trumps all. Crowdsourcing users and using as ambiguous of an indicator as sketchiness places a significant amount of responsibility in the hands of anonymous users. SketchFactor lends a voice to individuals who are able to standing behind their iPhones and project their preconceived notions or biases on a forum lacking checks and balances. In a society that has not completely rid itself of exclusionary tendencies, an application with the power to do just that can only strengthen racial tensions and biases. Yes, ideally SketchFactor is an application that can provide a rode map to provide safe trips to its users, but more importantly it is a box containing tools powerful enough to reinforce ideologies that countless minorities have sacrificed their lives for. SketchFactor, by nature, is a form of redlining, whether its creators intended for it to be or not. The redlining caused by SketchFactor often leads to broken window policing due to the generalizations and stereotypes formed and applied by the application. The broken window policing is correlated with minority mass incarcerations, which also result from instances of racial profiling.

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.

Pendergrass, Taylor. “In New York, A Rogue Wave Of Criminal Injustice.” American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU, 23 June 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Levine, Harry. “The Scandal of Racist Marijuana Arrests-and What To Do About It.” The Nation. N.p., 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Gittelson, Kim. “‘Sketchy’ App Sparks Racism Row.” BBC News. N.p., Aug. 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

“On Michael Brown, Sketch Factor, and Finding a Safe Way Home – 48 Hills.” 48 Hills. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Harcourt, and Ludwig. “Errata: Broken Windows: New Evidence from New York City and a Five-City Social Experiment.” The University of Chicago Law Review 74.1, Symposium: Intergenerational Equity and Discounting (2007): 407. Web.

“Racial Profiling Seen as Pervasive, Unjust.” Racial Profiling Seen as Pervasive, Unjust. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.

Sneed, Tierney. “From Ferguson to Staten Island, Questions About Broken Window Policing.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, Aug. 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s