Redlining 2.0: Microsoft App Would Help You Avoid Blighted Areas—And Keep Them Blighted

Microsoft understands that pedestrians could use resources like GPS just as much as drivers. But one feature on its otherwise promising new app for city-dwelling walkers — dubbed the “Avoid Ghetto” app by critics — raises questions about race, class and how we view troubled urban neighborhoods.

Girard Avenue in Philadelphia: What would the app say about it? Credit: Matt Bevilacqua

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Earlier this month, Microsoft revealed that it has patented a new app that would let pedestrians use GPS to navigate their way through a city.

From the patent itself:

A large amount of focus in route generation has focused upon vehicle route generation and little attention has been paid to pedestrian route production. Since a large number of individuals travel by vehicle, application to pedestrian travel has been ignored. However, there has been a long felt need for route generation towards individuals that do not commonly travel by vehicle — for instance, many economically challenged areas are populated with individuals that do not own motorized vehicles and generally travel by walking.

Now, this part comes as great news. It’s promising to see a company like Microsoft acknowledge that cars are not the only viable way of getting around. As everyone from national politicians down to municipal planners has too often demonstrated, the prevailing national attitude seems to be that motorists deserve attention over those who travel by other means (public transportation, bike, foot). That such a prominent brand would provide a much-needed resource to pedestrians is a small but important step toward recognition for non-drivers.

But, as others have pointed out, the app comes with one very problematic feature: If the pedestrian so chooses, she can enable a device that would alter her route so as to avoid “unsafe neighborhoods.”

For some, the term “unsafe neighborhood” translates to “ghetto” and raises all sorts of questions about race, class, and rape awareness, topics that other blogs have already discussed to varying degrees of success. But whatever the implications of bias — and they are dubious, and Microsoft ought to address them ASAP — this feature at best serves to maintain the status quo, highlighting the divide that separates blighted areas from thriving ones, and discouraging people from ever crossing it.

Steering pedestrians away from neglected areas only prolongs their “ghetto” status, denying the attention needed to fill storefronts with businesses and populate streets with enough people to counteract crime. Making it visible to outsiders, on the other hand, can call attention to a neighborhood’s potential and allow it to move away from stagnation and blight. Take the H Street corridor in Washington, D.C., which has seen tremendous growth in just over half a decade, or St. Claude Avenue’s ongoing transformation in New Orleans.

Or Brewerytown, a neighborhood located just northwest of Philadelphia’s Center City. Having long suffered from neglect, decay and high crime rates, the accessible, highly walkable area got some attention in the mid-2000s when the city sought to reinstate a trolley line along Girard Avenue, the one of the area’s main strips. The news brought interest from renters and investors alike, and in the years since crime has steadily declined while a number of local businesses have opened their doors.

Full disclosure: Next American City is among those who have opened a space on West Girard Aveue, and this writer recently moved into an apartment right down the street. But how would Microsoft rate the still-redeveloping Brewerytown as safe for walking? Would its app direct me straight to home or work? Or take me on some roundabout journey through a “safer” neighborhood?

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Tags: philadelphiawashington dcnew orleansraceappsmapping

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