Reconfigure Potentially Racist Phone App

cell phone

Target: Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington, Creators and Founders of SketchFactor

Goal: Avoid skewed data sourcing and promote the use of allegedly racist app by users of all backgrounds

A new application called SketchFactor has incited talk of racism. The app uses crowd-sourced observations and public data to determine the relative “sketchiness of an area.” However, there are several potential problems with this model that we must urge the creators to address. Simply including the option of reporting racial profiling and harassment, or including categories for users to report low lighting, desolate areas, and general “weird” stuff is not sufficient to denounce suspicions of racism.

To begin, the crime data that the app uses must include all crimes. The SketchFactor app definitely has potential to be racist and perpetuate stereotypes, but with careful management and thoughtful oversight, the app might be able to divert pedestrians from vulnerable situations. To that end, crime data aught to include more than just violent crime. For example, it’s pretty sketchy when money laundering takes place or a business does not comply with safety codes. By including all crimes in the data sourced by SketchFactor, the scale will not be unfairly tipped to red-flag impoverished neighborhoods.

One comment on the app states, “There’s a homeless shelter or something that houses the poor here. The residents hang out front and never bother anyone, but it’s uncomfortable as you pass an otherwise nice area.” Comments such as this and the interview comment made by the mobile apps co-founder Allison McGuire stating that sketchy situations range “from rats and rancid smells to leering homeless guys…” do nothing to improve society. Homelessness is a massive problem in the United States and labeling (or allowing people to label) homeless people as sketchy does not advance education and incites fear of a marginalized population that really needs public support.

The major problem with SketchFactor is that it incites fear, perpetuates stereotypes, and does not actively intend to improve the situation in certain communities. If thousands or millions of people begin to use this app, there must be proportional use by people of diverse backgrounds as well as use of crime data that highlights both white and minority crime. The answer to improve safety in U.S. cities is not avoidance and fear of certain areas, it is education and eradication of stereotypes to better the lives of people traditionally shunned by society. Tell the founders of SketchFactor to work to educate and promote understanding instead of fear and avoidance.


Dear Ms. McGuire and Mr. Herrington,

It would be very easy to denounce your new app as racist and condemn it, but it seems that you have taken some steps, such as including racial profiling as a sketchy behavior, to fight off claims of racism. However, this alone is not enough. You must make sure the crime data you source highlights all crimes, so that “sketchy” crimes by Caucasians can also be avoided. Instilling fear and creating preconceived notions about people and neighborhoods only serves to increase stereotypes and racism. Instead, take this opportunity to educate people about homelessness and poverty. Being different and on the margins of dominant culture is not inherently sketchy.

Other than locating areas of “sketchy” behavior, I urge you to promote the use of this app in all neighborhoods, for a variety of purposes, especially targeting locations that are sketchy not because of the people within them, but because of environmental factors such as low lighting or narrow streets. Use this opportunity to educate citizens about areas of poverty and why crime happens and ways to improve society instead of fearing and hiding from certain portions of it.


[Your Name Here]

Photo Credit: Victorgrigas via Wikimedia Commons

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