The Equity Factor

How to Usefully Channel Your Outrage Over the SketchFactor App

Is it possible to recontextualize the SketchFactor app as a tool to combat racial profiling?

SketchFactor app


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Even before SketchFactor was released last Friday, the outcry over the app’s racist and classist tones was unmissable. In the words of its co-founders, SketchFactor takes user-generated data about the “sketchiness” of certain neighborhoods to “empower” users to “get lost intelligently.” However, many of the early entries on SketchFactor’s map featured thinly veiled, racialized complaints about the homeless, catcalling, gang signs and drug deals — supporting the notion that the platform is a place for whites and tourists to vent fears about people of color and reignite regressive ideas about the dangers of inner cities and gang-related crime.

The app almost seems like troll bait, with the Onion-worthy press photos of the app’s co-founders Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington as the cherry on top — the two are pictured as smiling, oblivious white 20somethings convinced that they are providing a useful service, not a way for privileged whites to communicate their discomfort around unfamiliar environments and poverty.

Surprisingly, last week SketchFactor’s home page briefly touted a partnership with Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, an organization formed in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 that’s dedicated to “confronting institutional racism like racial profiling and gun violence through creative technology, counter marketing, and grassroots organizing.” I wondered: Why would an organization opposed to racial profiling partner with SketchFactor?

According to Dante Barry, deputy director of Million Hoodies, the group elected to serve as beta testers for the app, offering pushback to McGuire and Herrington about how the technology worked or didn’t work to spotlight injustices against people of all backgrounds.

“We saw potential in the app to encourage users in our community to track, report and spotlight injustices but also call out any abuse of [white] privilege,” explains Barry. We do not support nor have we ever supported the language or description of ‘sketchy’ or ‘SketchFactor,’ but continued to explore working with the team to possibly license the technology that powered a tool we thought could be useful.”

Over the weekend, the reference to the partnership on the homepage was scrubbed from SketchFactor’s website, at Million Hoodies’ request according to Barry, along with the deletion of other early blog entries. (I reached out to SketchFactor for comment, but had not heard back by time of publication.) Barry says that Million Hoodies had explored the idea of a partnership, but had never made it official and that “SketchFactor launched suddenly to the public without any further lead time.” The co-founders also added a note alluding to the criticism: “It’s no secret. We’ve seen the negative press. Setting the record straight: SketchFactor is a tool for anyone, anywhere, at any time. We have a reporting mechanism for racial profiling, harassment, low lighting, desolate areas, weird stuff, you name it.”

For much of American urban history, mapping has been a tool to identify and contain “vice” perpetuated by minorities, as this map of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1885 demonstrates. After the National Housing Act of 1934, the Federal Housing Authority began a practice known as redlining, which blocked black and low-income neighborhoods from receiving FHA-backed home loans through color-coded maps. Redlining exacerbated and perpetuated the ghettoization of black American communities in cities across the country. Over the past year, sites like Ghetto Tracker and Judgmental Maps have continued the legacy of redlining by reinforcing deep-seeded stereotypes about urban spaces. It’s not surprising that there has been a strong backlash leveled against SketchFactor.

It will be interesting to follow up on the app’s crowdsourced maps as they are populated and compare them to maps of race demographics, crime data from police departments and areas affected by gentrification to try to identify where those layers intersect with or diverge from “sketchy” areas. I wonder whether users will take up Million Hoodies’ subversive call to recontextualize the app to report incidents of police misconduct, surveillance, and practices like stop and frisk, especially in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. If so, in the future, could you use the app to map a walking path to avoid aggressive policing? Is it worth that level of engagement?

Barry notes that that there are other tools available to empower communities to report these types of injustices. In 2012, Million Hoodies partnered with InterOccupy and Occupy Technology to create #OccupyMap, an open source platform to “identify and micro-target hot spots of injustice.” The organization also recommends Color of Change’s Cop Watch NYC app, Communities United for Police Reform’s Know Your Rights toolkit, and the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Stop and Frisk Watch app as technology available to empower marginalized communities. These tools are currently focused on incidents in New York City, but have the potential to be replicated in cities nationwide.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Tags: appsracism

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