App brings racial profiling right to your smartphone

SketchFactor debuts today in the iTunes app store and, soon, in Google Play.

It’s the work of two developers who say they wanted to come up with a navigation app for helping people avoid “sketchy” — wink, wink — areas of cities. In the app, people will be able to enter their subjective evaluations of neighborhoods on a “sketchiness” factor.

“We understand that people will see this issue,” developer Allison McGuire tells Crain’s New York Business. “And even though Dan and I are admittedly both young, white people, the app is not built for us as young, white people. 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.”

Kriston Capps, at The Atlantic’s CityLab, says the app will “weaponize” racial profiling.

SketchFactor presents itself as blissfully, almost hopefully, unaware of what its users will do with the thing. “Just saw a guy dancing in the street,” reads the sample tattle on the home page. “Seemed friendly…no pants. SketchFactor: 2.” That one might merit a police report, though the twee wording sounds more like a tweet or a text.

But are users really expected to submit or check in for encounters that aren’t sketchy? “Saw a golden retriever with a blond couple,” is a fearful report I expect no one to make. “The small plates options on this block are only decent.”

Instead, the app fuels (and is fueled by) a paranoid style of navigation, one in which crimes of opportunity lurk in surroundings that (white, well-to-do) people deem as unfamiliar or disorderly. It’s similar in philosophy to a popular approach to policing, one that recent research has demonstrated to be both biased and ineffective.

Jamelle Bouie, a writer for Slate and a friend, has written recently about how policing “broken windows”—that is, seeking out and cracking down on minor offenses in order to prevent major ones—is both a waste of police resources and a driver in the super-incarceration of black and Latino residents.

The developers are getting their share of social networking pushback:

(h/t: Katie Kather)

Related: Telling white people the criminal justice system is racist makes them like it more (Vox).