Special Report

SketchFactor and Its Skittish Critics

Did you know it's racist to care about one’s safety?

By 8.19.14

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There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery — then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” Jesse Jackson

The inventors of a new iPhone (and soon on Android) app called SketchFactor think that similar, albeit not necessarily race-based, concerns — such as caring for one’s personal safety — represent a market to be tapped.

Ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri, make the debate about SketchFactor particularly timely since — although with hugely different levels of importance and emotion — both are causing debates over race relations and racism in the United States.

And so the app uses public data combined with crowdsourced reports of “sketch” — meaning activity in a location that ranges from weird to dangerous, from catcalls to racial profiling, which is then marked on a map — to help users avoid neighborhoods or routes that might offer unwanted encounters.

No doubt that crowdsourced information allows the injection of bias, even racism, into such an application. But there’s a reason why so many of today’s most successful travel and leisure websites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp rely on user contributions to generate content that other users largely trust. It is a proven model, at least if there is a critical mass of participants.

But when they learned of SketchFactor, the left-wing blogosphere went crazy with cries of “racist!”

Sam Biddle, writing at Gawker.com, in a post filed under “Racism” and entitled “Smiling Young White People Make App for Avoiding Black Neighborhoods,” asks, with very little apparent sarcasm, “Is there any way to keep white people from using computers, before this whole planet is ruined?”

To Mr. Biddle, desperately trying to save a bad liberal website by attacking people he doesn’t know over an app he’s never seen, and himself the archetype of elite Izod (thanks to Sam Biddle for the correction) Lacoste-wearing (really, you must click on that link) hipster-nerd, I suggest some New Testament wisdom: Heal thyself.

Biddle goes on to explicitly call SketchFactor a “racist app.” Just how a computer program can have an opinion about human beings based on skin melanin content remains unexplained.

Over at the Huffington Post, Maxwell Strachan begins his deep thinking (either loosely pilfered from Biddle or another example of leftist groupthink) with, “Two white people are launching an app that seeks to help people avoid ‘sketchy’ areas.” He then quickly descends into predictable liberal insults of the unenlightened mass of America:

[T]he app depends in large part on a Yelp-like rating system based on the personal views of Americans, a people historically known to mask the occasional racist view behind words like “dangerous” and “drugs.”

Mr. Strachan, who happens to be white, does not seem to recognize that perhaps there is a correlation between high-crime areas (such as areas with overt drug dealing) and race. Is it not safer for whites and blacks alike to walk through Hollywood than through Compton, through Chicago’s River North rather than the South Side, or through Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge rather than Brownsville? Is it racist to recognize reality? More importantly, does recognizing reality mean approving of the status quo? (If you are unsure of the answer to this question, consider yourself a liberal.)

And at Vice.com, Natasha Lennard — a young white woman whose most recent article argues that the past week’s rioting and looting in Ferguson, MO was “not senseless or distracting” — offers us her translation of what “sketchy” means to SketchFactor’s assumed target audience: “areas that make privileged white people nervous because they are scared of groups of not-white people and can't find a nice place for brunch.”

She adds that “this idea of ‘sketchiness’ is the sole purview of the racist and classist.” How difficult it must be to write when so much of your vocabulary is composed of words ending in “ist.” And how dreary life must be to spend so much time thinking in terms of such words.

Ms. Lennard’s screed is comprehensively juvenile and petulant: “[White lady Allison] McGuire created the app with electrical engineer Daniel (Dan) Herrington, who is white, has a beard, and looks like his name sounds.”

Well, that settles it. A white bearded guy? Unless he’s Jesus, he must be bad news. (And to Natasha, I imagine even Jesus wouldn’t be worthy of further description.)

The Twitterverse also exploded with anti-SketchFactor frenzy, saying it “serves to create even wider cultural voids” and “promot(es) racism, classism and paranoia,” criticizing the company’s logo (basically an upside-down ink drop with white eyes) for “shaming poor minority neighborhoods,” and making stupid jokes such as “I’d like to report a homeless person sighting. I am very unnerved…”

App creators McGuire and Herrington briefly posted a response to the attacks by hyperventilating leftists, noting that “These hit pieces have attacked the founders personally. We get it, they need clicks. However, the reporters of these pieces never contacted us, never interviewed us, and the app wasn't even live when they wrote it.”

They might have added that the critics are free to not download and not use the app.

But there is a bright, or at least darkly amusing, side to liberal hysterics. In the most ironic news story in recent days, a WUSA TV (CBS Channel 9 in Washington, DC) news crew was “working on a story” about SketchFactor.

While the crew was walking in the Petworth area of Northwest Washington, D.C. conducting interviews, their news van, parked a few blocks away, was robbed and thousands of dollars of computers, cameras, and other gear was stolen. Using a “Find my iPhone” app, they were able to find some of the equipment in a dumpster, but the most valuable (and untraceable through an app) items are likely gone for good.

Reporter Mola Lenghi’s Twitter feed is not particularly political; to the extent that he has a focus, it is on supporting the Redskins — including keeping the name — and saving Libya, his parents’ country of birth, from radical Islamists.

So I believe Mr. Lenghi's comments to me — which were delayed because his laptop was among the stolen items — about his team’s approach to the story: “Our angle was pretty basic. We were going to select several neighborhoods spread out throughout DC, read the SketchFactor reviews and then ask the locals (residents, business owners, etc.) what they thought of said reviews (if they were accurate). I had no intention of taking a stand supporting or criticizing it. The report aired but only to tell the tale of our experience.”

In that report, Mr. Lenghi noted — in a ghastly place-ist stereotype — that the dumpsters were in “a type of place where stolen goods would be dumped.” He said that in determining that the area where they found some of their stuff was in fact “sketchy,” they “gave it the eyeball test… you don’t need an app to tell you that all the time.”

Profile much, Mola?

Of course he does. And of course he should. And of course it doesn’t make him a racist. 

Self-protection is not racism. Reality does not always comport with our wishes; just ask the residents of Ferguson, Missouri. Certain groups commit violent crimes at disproportionate rates. Other groups commit terrorist acts against American targets at disproportionate rates. Some locations are truly riskier than others. Avoiding those neighborhoods or screening people who fit those high-risk profiles represents efficiency, not bigotry.

Responding to an inquiry for this article, app creator Allison McGuire offered a few insights about SketchFactor: “With respect to painting a neighborhood as sketchy or not, we created SketchFactor to do the opposite. There's a reason people pinpoint specific street corners, alleyways, or streets. You can't mark a town, city, or state as sketchy. We are interested in gaining information about what users deem sketchy, and why. So far, we're seeing that whether or not a place is well lit has great bearings on people's experience of the area.

“We use and will continue to incorporate publicly available datasets, such as lighting, 311 information, and crime, in the backend of our technology. During our product development with hundreds of diverse people, we consistently heard that everyone wanted access to information, but didn't want to be overwhelmed by it. We found a happy medium by incorporating this data into our directions.”

From the Oscar Wilde school of media attention, Ms. McGuire noted that the app creators were hoping for about 10,000 users in its first three months but wound up getting 60,000 downloads in four days despite — or maybe because of — the hyperbolic criticism of supercilious liberals who wrote their mindless attacks before the app was available for download and without getting in touch with McGuire or Herrington.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the politically correct outrage against SketchFactor is the focus on the app creators’ skin color. Liberals complain constantly about “dog whistles,” meaning terms that they view as not so subtle substitutions for overtly racist language or attitudes. For these people, “dangerous” is just another word for “black” (or maybe “Hispanic”) and “uncomfortable” means “irrationally afraid of people who don’t look like me.”

But sometimes “dangerous” just means dangerous. And sometimes “uncomfortable” just means uncomfortable — a perfectly legitimate feeling even if a smug liberal says there’s nothing to worry about.

Liberals, however, offer no dog whistles on the subject of race — because so many are explicitly racist. No subtlety or code words are needed when article after article focuses on “white people” creating an app. But then liberals believe that having deeply held negative views of white people isn’t racist, and that since they claim to have good intentions their actual words and the hypocrisy of their venomous rants are above reproach.

The approach of SketchFactor’s liberal critics is all about repression and control and shame — which they seem not to recognize are explicitly illiberal tactics. They call app creators racist, suggest the same of SketchFactor’s future users, and call for the app to be banned by Apple and Google (owners of iTunes and Android, respectively). It is in character for people who want to shut down the ability of companies to participate in politics (but don’t even try to suggest unions be treated similarly!) and to regulate conservative talk radio out of business under the guise of “fairness.”

Never do they consider the possibility that — outside of activities that might spur demand for free birth control or government cheese — people should be free to make their own choices. Apparently, since the keepers of all things good and true would choose not to use SketchFactor, the rest of us benumbed troglodytes must not have the opportunity to make up our own minds. Big Brother has nothing on cloistered liberals like Sam Biddle who marinate themselves in anger and jealousy and whose ignorance is only surpassed by their willingness to impose their views on others.

I doubt I’ll ever use SketchFactor, but it’s an interesting idea. The faux outrage over it says much more about the American left than about Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington. But I still don’t know about that beard.

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About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.