Hive Mind of Bigots

New frontiers in social networking:

SketchFactor, the brainchild of co-founders Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington, is a Manhattan-based navigation app that crowdsources user experiences along with publicly available data to rate the relative “sketchiness” of certain areas in major cities. The app will launch on iTunes on Friday, capping off a big week for the startup, which was named as a finalist in NYC BigApps, a city-sponsored competition that promotes technologies designed to improve quality of life issues in New York City and government transparency.
According to Ms. McGuire, a Los Angeles native who lives in the West Village, the impetus behind SketchFactor was her experience as a young woman navigating the streets of Washington, D.C., where she worked at a nonprofit.
“How can we take large amounts of data and crowdsource opinions on certain areas?” she wondered to herself. “I brought that idea to a Lean Startup event in D.C., it got a huge reception and suddenly I was on my way.”

When challenged with the obvious observation that people’s subjective impressions of whether a neighborhood is “sketchy” is probably going to just enable racists, the founders replied that they only wanted people to report “incidents, not feelings”. Problem solved.

There have been attempts to use police data to determine what’s going on in a neighborhood (most notably, which morphed into Every Block and was then shut down after NBC acquired it). That would be an app I’d be willing to buy, but it would take work, and it’s not “social”, so a couple of 20-something douches couldn’t get any VC funding for it.

(Thanks to reader J for sending this in)

33 replies
  1. 1
    Quinerly says:

    Welcome to Chief Justice Roberts’ post racial America. Enjoy your stay.

  2. 2
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    Re-posted from the last thread because it applies:

    @Raven: On the slightly more serious side, back in the day I lived and worked in all kinds of supposedly “dicey” places (read, “black”) including East St. Louis. The 2 worst places I ever lived, were all white neighborhoods. Murders, rapes, assaults, break-ins, the whole 9 yards. The only time I ever saw a cop was when sh!t went sideways.

    I remember one job I was working on at the old Carter Carburetor plant on N. Grand (not a good neighborhood, but not bad either) (It has since been declared a Superfund site) Anyway, my boss pulled in a bunch of cabinetmakers from the out-of-work list. Of course they were all white, and as clueless as one could be about “inner city culture” (not black, “inner city”. Even if Paul Ryan can’t tell the diff, there is one) One day they all went out to lunch and when they returned they were… disturbed, with one young guy particularly … Scared sh!tless.

    Seems he got into a little argument with a black man. As I sat and listened to this poor dumb white boy of a Jefferson County redneck relate his near death experience with the first black man he had ever actually spoken to (exaggeration) (probably), I heard every caricature ever seen on TV of how things are in the Big City. At the end I just said, “You are probably the dumbest Jeffco cracker I have ever met. You were asking for it. You got big red letters all over your face saying, “Well FVCK ME!!!” He didn’t get it, he just didn’t get it, and try as I might, I couldn’t explain to him how many ways he insulted that man.

    Since then I have learned that even tho there are very few places I won’t go, there are a whole lot of people I won’t go to those places with.

    I want to add: I recently had a discussion with a buddy of mine who is the red-neckest of Jefferson Co rednecks*** who tried to warn me of the dangers of going to the city (after I don’t know how many years I have known Gary, he still doesn’t know I lived in STL for 20+ years???). He related a story of an altercation he had with some blacks where he was knocked to the ground and his girl friend was “felt up”. If all one heard were the words he used, one would think him totally blameless, but if you filled in the blanks, and there were some gaping holes, you knew better. Not that anything he did was intentional, he was just another clueless redneck. Not to excuse the blacks or what they did, but he wasn’t robbed, he wasn’t beaten, his gf wasn’t raped. What those guys did was the equivalent of saying, “Go away, and don’t come back.”

    Outside of saying that I had seen the same and worst from whites, I didn’t say much. But I did add Gary’s name to the list of people I will never go to the city with.

    All of which is a long way of saying, there are incidents, and then there are incidents. Something tells me this women doesn’t know the difference.

    *** and yes, Gary is racist, a subject he and I have had many…. discussions about. That doesn’t make him a bad human being, just a really stupid one.

  3. 3
    Ramalama says:

    I’ve been to tons of sketchy places, lived in some too: Alphabet City in the 1990s, Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, Chicago South side, Berlin, every last neighborhood in Montreal, everywhere in Amsterdam, Los Angeles. No problems with crime. But the thing that stands out most when reading about this new app is how I sat in my car in Chicago on Michigan Ave, the best part with all the upper crust snob shops, at rushhour when 2 guys run past on foot. One of them was carrying a gun. I do not know whether or not he was a cop. But moments later I heard gun fire. Got the hell outta there as quickly as I could…from the rich neighborhood.

  4. 4
    greennotGreen says:

    Only somewhat related, but since it happened last night, it’s on my mind.

    I used to live at the edge of a predominantly black neighborhood (I’m white.) I thought it was a good neighborhood, and I liked living there. (I just didn’t like my husband, ergo the move and subsequent divorce.) A few years later I was driving through the area with a friend from Ohio. There were a few people out on the street, and they were black. My friend says, “You drive through here all the time? Is it safe?”

    Last night I stopped in that same neighborhood, since gentrified. I was waiting in line at a restaurant to get take-out when I realized that there was not one black person in there. And when I left and looked at the people on the street – all white, except for one guy and he may have been a parking lot attendant.

    While I’m sure that neighborhood is no longer “sketchy”, I’m also sure it’s no longer an area of interest to me. In a diverse town like mine, I don’t want to eat where the KKK would like to eat.

    Also, never get Mexican food at a restaurant that doesn’t have Hispanic people among the clientele. You want Mexican food? Go where Mexicans eat.

  5. 5
    Emma says:

    @Ramalama: That sort of makes sense. Like when they asked Willie Sutton “why do you rob banks?” and he answered “Because that’s where the money is.” If you’re looking for real money, you go where it is.

  6. 6
    greennotGreen says:

    The working class neighborhood where I’ve lived for 27years has increasingly become an immigrant neighborhood. Neighbors across the street are Thai, another family is from El Salvador, next to them is a Mexican family. In all that time, I’ve had two break-ins, one recently where they stole a TV (only.) Both times when I reported the thefts to my white neighbors, one of them has blamed it on “the neighborhood changing.”

    You know what I observe about the change? Now that the poor whites at the quadraplexes down the block have been replaced by Hispanics, the police aren’t there every Saturday night to break up drunken fights. Lots of times “sketchy” is in the eye of the beholder.

  7. 7
    weaselone says:


    That’s generally a good idea regardless of the ethnicity of the cuisine. There are of course exceptions to that rule as there are to most others.

  8. 8
    greennotGreen says:

    @weaselone: Absolutely true, of course, across cuisines. I am just really partial to Mexican food. Salsa is a major food group for me.

  9. 9
    Betty Cracker says:

    It’s a good idea to avoid high-crime areas if you can, especially in an unfamiliar town. I can see an app being helpful in that regard. But yeah, crowd-sourcing it does rather leave the welcome mat out for white supremacists.

  10. 10
    rikyrah says:

    You are right about Mexican food. I only go to Mexican restaurants where the only English is on the menu.

  11. 11
    satby says:

    @greennotGreen: My father, the Chicago cop, taught me that at a very young age. My dad was buddies with every ethnic restaurant owner in the city. He loved people, and he loved food, it was a natural fit.

    @Ramalama: A lot of white-flighters were often surprised I still lived on Chicago’s South Side, in an area that never went above 40% minority. Most heard comment was “I didn’t know any white people still lived there”
    My reply: “this one does”. The ‘hood got better when they left anyway.

    About that Chicago crime mapping, I worked for the non-profit that developed the prototype> The Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety was a grassroots community organizing association that at the time was building the case for community policing. We subsequently got the grant from the city to organize and train community members in how to work with the community policing program as it was rolled out.
    The mapping of actual crime statistics and patterns can be very empowering in addressing both real crime and in allaying the sense that crime is pervasive.

  12. 12
    WereBear says:

    I heard from friends that Florida is now infested with Zimmerman-loving gated communities where parents won’t even let their kids play in their own yard, much less cross the street visit another child.

    Now this is how you grow messed-up people. There’s a place I wouldn’t want to live in, for certain.

  13. 13
    Barbara says:

    I grew up in NYC, was a teen in the high-crime era of the 70s. What I avoided back then, and still try to do, are areas that are deserted. THAT gives me the willies.

    I do believe there is safety to be found in numbers. I’d rather be on a crowded subway platform in a “bad” neighborhood than an empty one in a “good” neighborhood. Likewise, I’d rather be on a city street corner, waiting for a bus with other people, no matter what their socio-economic/ethnic/racial stats, than walking through a suburban parking garage with no one else in sight.

    But I’m not getting the impression this app is taking headcounts and putting them in their calculus.

  14. 14
    Sly says:

    Even crime stats can provide false positives for dangerous neighborhoods, because they’re biased towards neighborhoods where (a) people report crimes and (b) police arrest suspected criminals. You know where I don’t want to live? A place with a reasonable to high population but with very few reported crimes or arrests, because that signals to me that that is a place where law enforcement has essentially broken down.

  15. 15
    Ramalama says:

    @Betty Cracker: I had Dutch friends who became scared silly by a Florida shooting. I worked in the US Consulate in Amsterdam for the briefest of times, helping foreigners plan trips to the US. This was before the internets. Scores of people told me they were avoiding Florida b/c of this shooting (I think it was one person shot dead, which is horrible, but it wasn’t like an outbreak of murders of tourists), and so were hoping to spend their time in let’s see Nashville, North Dakota, New York City, San Francisco, and Disneyland, and wanted to travel by car and they only had 10 days to do it.

    The app might make sense for them.

    But if they’re tech-savvy anyway, they likely know about Yelp and stuff. I found willing riders from all over Yurp and Yuk and even Ayesha to come ride with me in my car in between Boston and Montreal via Craigslist. Which came before all the rider apps now (don’t talk to me about what was before craigslist).

  16. 16
    Woodrowfan says:

    remember a few years ago when some teabaggers group was coming to DC, they warned their people to avoid the yellow and green lines on the Metro. because those are the Metro lines that go into “those” (wink wink) people’s neighborhoods.

  17. 17
    Roger Moore says:

    Another important point is that sketchiness can be highly time dependent. Different kinds of people are on the street at different times of day and week, and the same people behave differently depending on circumstances. There are plenty of places I would not want to visit at 10 PM on Friday or Saturday but would be fine visiting at 6 AM on a work day just because the people and their behavior would be so different between the two times.

  18. 18
    satby says:

    @Roger Moore: Prime drunk folks hours aren’t safe anywhere really.

  19. 19
    buffalopoet says:

    Of course, their statement that ‘they only wanted people to report “incidents, not feelings”’ screams ‘But feelings are incidents too, my friends!’ *wink wink*

  20. 20
    Mary Solomon says:

    Every block is alive and well in Chicago – it has been revived by current owner

  21. 21
    Lurking Canadian says:

    @Barbara: this. Most people, everywhere, are not criminals. If there are twenty people within sight, it is highly likely that at least nineteen of them are law abiding citizens just going about their business.

    If there’s only one other guy on the sidewalk, or under the overpass, or in the stairwell to the subway…well, there’s probably still only a less than 5% chance he’s got ill intent, but if he does, there’s nobody around to help.

  22. 22
    satby says:

    @Lurking Canadian:

    Most people, everywhere, are not criminals.

    Repeated for truth. Sad that the media force feeds an alternative view.

  23. 23
    kc says:

    I’m not understanding why the app creators are being attacked as “douches,” or why the hip white bloggers attacking them assume racism on the part of everyone else.

    Might have been a good thing to have when I was in grad school. After I got raped, I found out that their had been several sexual attacks & a mugging very nearby, one in the same building where I was attacked.

    But enjoy the snarking.

  24. 24
    Andy says:


    I agree completely about avoiding deserted areas, but try telling that to non-urban souls. I turned 13 at the end of 1969 and had already been riding the New York subway to school for more than two years. Skip ahead twenty-five years to find me, newly relocated to the west coast with a work assignment in New Jersey, regularly bringing my non-urban colleagues into Manhattan for dinner. I’d often drive uptown on city streets to the G.W. Bridge to show them parts of the city tourists normally wouldn’t get to see. It was a little sad that more often than not the reaction I got when driving along 125th Street was one of fear, even in the twilight of a beautiful summer evening. Looking back, I’m sorry I never took that crew to Sylvia’s (not that it would necessarily have helped, but at least dinner would have been really good).

    As for the two brainless children behind SketchFactor, here’s hoping they have a nice long walk on a very short pier.

  25. 25
    Woodrowfan says:

    KC, but this app is not based on crime stats from actual, reported crimes. It’s based on subjective feelings. And such feelings are often based on racial and class stereotypes. “There have been four reported rapes in this wooded section of the park in the past year” is useful info. “I didn’t feel safe because I saw some minorities sitting around” is not.

  26. 26
    greennotGreen says:

    @kc: I think the problem commenters are having with SketchFactor is the crowd-sourcing part. If a person is already fearful, whether due to racism or just timidity, many interactions become threatening. Those interactions could be reported and increase the “sketchy” rating of an area when really the only disturbing activity was taking place in the reporter’s brain.

    Actual crime statistics are more useful. Even though in some neighborhoods all crimes are not reported, in high crime areas, at least in my city, you certainly see clusters of reported incidents in those neighborhoods.

  27. 27
    cthulhu says:

    The LA Times has it’s long running Murder Map. It is an interesting database. But generally murder is not a particular high risk and only rarely involves strangers. But LAPD does provide more general recent crime maps. As here’s where the app seems likely to be misleading. We live in what would undoubtedly be considered a sketchier area: quite a few homeless, tagging, lower income interspersed with middle class and upper middle class. Lots of different ethnicities.

    Nicer area to the south, more white, higher income, where people go for dinner, shopping, etc.

    Yes our area has a fairly high theft from car and some burglary but the area to the south (where the obvious money is) is where the robberies happen.

    But simply looking at the two areas, I think most people would assume your risk of robbery was higher in our area versus the nicer area. Unless you consider a homeless person asking for money as attempted robbery.

  28. 28
    Barbara says:

    @Andy: You are one year younger than me. I wasn’t allowed on the subway by myself until high school, though I could go with at least one friend, preferably two, starting in junior high. But then again, I was a girl and we lived in Queens, a bus ride away from the nearest station.

    I should point out though that I was allowed to take the bus to the library, Rockaway Beach and other destinations in Queens, starting in fifth grade. We were so much freer than my cousins in the suburbs.

  29. 29
    Barbara says:

    @Andy: You are one year younger than me. I wasn’t allowed on the subway by myself until high school, though I could go with at least one friend, preferably two, starting in junior high. But then again, I was a girl and we lived in Queens, a bus ride away from the nearest station.

    I should point out though that I was allowed to take the bus to the library, Rockaway Beach and other destinations in Queens, starting in fifth grade. We were so much freer than my cousins in the suburbs.

  30. 30
    BobS says:

    @kc: Because they’re hip white bloggers. @Woodrowfan: I did EMS in Detroit many years ago — my “subjective feelings” were enough to teach me which areas to avoid when I wasn’t being paid to be there.

  31. 31
    Chet says:

    @Andy: Ever check out 125th on Google Maps street view these days? From what I can see it’s all white hipsters and tourists now.

  32. 32
    Plantsmantx says:

    I liked this tweet from Jamilah Lemieux, who is a senior editor at Ebony magazine:

    JamilahVerified account‏@JamilahLemieux
    I can’t WAIT to put my block on here:

  33. 33
    jrg says:

    If “sketchyness” and crime stats are not strongly correlated, that would prove racial stereotypes misguided. If “sketchyness” and crime stats are strongly correlated, that will naturally eliminate racism as the presumed cause for a sketchyness rating. Sounds like a win/win to me.

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