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How Sketchy Is That D.C. Street? There's An App For That

The SketchFactor app lets users submit incident reports and rate them on a "sketchiness" scale. 
The SketchFactor app lets users submit incident reports and rate them on a "sketchiness" scale. 

This post has been updated

Judging how safe a neighborhood is can be scientific as much as it can be subjective, but a new app born in D.C. lets users rate streets, corners and blocks based on how "sketchy" they are.

SketchFactor, a navigation app launched today, allows its users to submit incident reports for everything from assault and cat-calling to low-lit areas and loitering and assign them a "sketch" factor on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 being not sketchy at all and 5 being sketchy.

The app is the brainchild of Allison McGuire, a Los Angeles native whose five years in D.C. prompted the idea.

"Walking on many streets and through many neighborhoods, I realized that there is a lot of information that I would want have liked in advance of my walk, like is this desolate area, is nobody around, or is there high foot traffic, or is it a low-lit area," she says. "Upon realizing that many of my friends have experienced the same thing — D.C. can be very block to block, with drug deals on one block and strollers on the next — I talked a lot about this with friends and pitched the idea."

The app, which was developed at D.C. tech incubator 1776, features a map with reported "sketchy" incidents, lets users submit their own and vote on those submitted by others. Users can also tweak settings based on what concerns them the most; a male user, for example, can turn off cat-calling reports.

“People are able report sketchy things, read other peoples’ sketchy stories, and get directions to where they need to go," says McGuire, who recently decamped to New York, where she says there are more resources for developing apps of this sort.

Other similar apps have been met with skeptical reactions, largely because rating or labeling neighborhoods can be subjective and open to interpretation. Additionally, say critics, SketchFactor could empower users to take single incidents to mar entire neighborhoods.

"We do think there is a great use for an app when it comes to street crime, sexual violence, public sexual harassment and assault. We think that using technology to help public safety issues is a very noble cause… especially when done in a community-driven way," says Renee Davidson, a member of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, which has fought sexual harassment in D.C. and worked with Metro to create an online tool that allows riders to report harassment on trains and buses.

But she worries about the broader implications of areas being labeled "sketchy," especially when the term is so open to debate. "Perceptions of what makes an area 'sketchy' or unsafe can be largely unfounded and largely based on assumptions or stereotypes around factors like race, economic privilege or immigration status," she says.

According to Daniel Herrington, the app's co-creator, SketchFactor — especially in D.C. — draws in information from third-party databases to give users a better and more objective sense of how safe or unsafe a street or corner is.

"In D.C., we have latitude and longitude coordinates for individual crimes released by the police department, which is an incredible thing to really give the block-to-block rating," he explains. (Both D.C. police and the police officers union have crime-mapping tools.)

"In a place like New York, we don’t get specific crime data for the points. They’ll give us precinct and borough data, which is the exact information we’re not interested in because we don’t want to label an entire borough as 'sketchy.' We want to allow users to be able to learn a little more on a street-level, corner by corner, block by block," he adds.

Herrington, an electrical engineer who hails from a small town in Mississippi and made his way through Austin and D.C. before landing in New York, also says that the app offers users a chance to rate other submissions as a means to avoid unfamiliarity with an area serving as judgement on whether it is safe or not.

"We actually weight whether or not certain things are credible, and we learn and create that score based on the amount of interaction from others. So every point can be up-voted or down-voted by saying, ‘I agree, that’s sketchy,’ ‘I disagree, that’s not sketchy,’ ‘Wow, that’s just offensive,’ or ‘This is irrelevant’ and all of that will affect the credibility of that user’s posts," he says.

The app has already received the backing of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, an organization created in 2012 in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Dante Barry, the group's deputy director, says the app can help identify the racial injustices his group was created to fight.

"We won't say no to any potential technology that can help empower communities. Million Hoodies encourages people to use [the] app to spotlight injustices but also call out any abuse of [white] privilege," he writes in an email.

For Davidson, the key isn't just what users report — but also what they will do that with information.

"We don’t want privileged people to stay out of these areas that they might deem 'sketchy.' We want them instead to invest in making them better and to build a stronger community," she says.

The app, which works nationwide, is currently only available for iPhone, though an Android version is in development.

Update, 4 p.m.: Barry from the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice emails a new statement in which he expresses his overall support for the app while distancing himself from the "sketchy" rating:

As an organization, we will not object to trying and testing any potential technology that can help empower communities. This approach to experimenting with new tech is why we comfortable when the team behind SketchFactor asked us to become closed beta testers for the tool. 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. 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.
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