Avoid the Ghetto App

“As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto” – Elvis Presley, In the Ghetto

My wife has a Garmin that she uses from time to time to help with directions when she’s going somewhere new. She doesn’t use it much anymore because the iPhone is probably just as useful. Or, at least, the iPhone hasn’t made nearly catastrophic mistakes in an attempt to “help” her find her way.

I remember about a year ago receiving a phone call toward the end of the day from my wife who was in need of directions. She was heading to a friend’s house in northern Virginia (coming from our home in Maryland). The Garmin had warned of impending traffic (normal for the DC beltway) and had redirected her right through the heart of DC – and some pretty shady neighborhoods. I have no doubt that the trip through DC was much longer than any traffic holdup would have been on the beltway, but the Garmin software apparently didn’t make such calculations.

The kicker was that once she landed smack dab in the middle of “the Ghetto,” the Garmin declared it had lost satellite signal and could no longer help. Fantastic. So, I get a phone call.

Fortunately I was at my desk and was able to quickly pull up a map and navigate her safely out of DC and back onto a major, south-bound highway. However, this was not the first time the Garmin had taken her to the “shortest” route that also included some not-so-great crime statistics.

In response to an apparently common problem, Microsoft has put together a smartphone app to help you “avoid the Ghetto” (the common name, though apparently there is no official name yet). I’ve heard about this before, and actually have no idea if Microsoft has the first or only working version. Either way, it sounds like a good idea to me. I mean, this is just data mining, right? All it’s really doing is taking crime statistics (a matter of public record), overlaying them on a map (also publicly available), and finding a path between two points that minimizes some function of those crime statistics. What could be wrong with that? What could be wrong with an app that pulls together information for you and provides it to you in a usable format?

Well, apparently not everybody is enthused about the new development. CBS (and many, many others) are reporting that the app is controversial. The story quotes one Juanita Wallace, who is the president of the Dallas NAACP, as saying “I’m going to be up in arms about it if it happens” (that is, if the app is released). Why, Juanita? Why are you going to be up in arms? Tell me the rationale?

Let’s pull the thread on a few complaints. The first is beyond inane. Let me quote the story at length: “Wallace spent her afternoon at a rally on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and said she felt safe there, but fears the app may project otherwise. ‘Can you imagine me not being able to go to MLK Blvd. because my GPS says that’s a dangerous crime area? I can’t even imagine that,’ she said.” Where to begin?

How about this, “she felt safe there, but fears the app may project otherwise.” I’ll chalk up the shifting of objects to the reporter, not Juanita. I read that sentence as “she felt safe there but fears the app may project that it is an unsafe area” (not that the app might predict that Juanita feels unsafe on MLK blvd). So, Juanita feels safe in what may or may not be a high crime area (I have no idea) but fears crime statistics would say it is unsafe. Umm, Juanita – the problem is the crime statistics, not the app. Further, may I presume that Juanita feels safe there because it is part of her neighborhood? People typically do feel safer in their neighborhood, even if it has bad crime statistics, because it is their neighborhood and they know the people.

The actual quote from Juanita is more ridiculous. “Can you imagine not being able to go to MLK Blvd?”I assure you that there is no Microsoft app in the world that can prevent me from going to MLK blvd. How could that even happen? This isn’t a police state app.

Wallace then goes on to compare the app to gerrymandering. (A policy that is typically welcomed by minority communities because it affords them majority status in a congressional district.) She claims that the app is “stereotyping” … or, as I would call it, retrieving public records … and that it is without a doubt “discriminatory.”

The last flourish sounds a bit too much like “a hit dog will holler.” Nobody, to my knowledge, has linked the app in any way, shape, or form to race. It only draws on crime statistics (again, a matter of public record). If Juanita Wallace wants to protest then she should protest the high crime statistics that have led to the marketability of such an app.

On that last note, consider the freedom of association implications. The app doesn’t use race in its processes (at least to my knowledge), but why shouldn’t there be such an app? Demographics are also readily available and one could easily mine the data, overlay on a map, and produce a route between two points that avoids densities of any ethnicity you want to avoid. Why would that be illegal? I actually doubt that it would, though perhaps there is some federal overreach that prohibits freedom of association.

So why don’t we see such an app? Well, if it is not illegal, I can tell you what it would be – DUMB! It would be the worst business decision Microsoft has made since it refused to pay protection money to the Clinton administration and went through the anti-trust ringer. Can you imagine the consumer backlash against such an app? Can you imagine the number of people who would say “I’ll never buy a Microsoft product again”? Microsoft can, and that’s why they haven’t produced such an app.

But if they won’t produce an “avoid the [insert race here]” app, why have they produced an “avoid the Ghetto” app? Because there is a demand. I want that app for my phone. Or, rather, I want it for my wife’s phone, so she can avoid the Ghetto.

The article then goes on to quote some businessmen in less-than-desirable crime neighborhoods, indicating that it would have a clear economic impact. I personally have my doubts about that one. People looking to avoid the Ghetto are travelers. They want to get from point A to point B – without stopping if possible – and without getting into trouble. They never had any intention of stopping at the local laundromat or insurance company.

That’s not to say there won’t be any economic impact, I just suspect it will be small. I also suspect it will be much smaller than the existing economic impact of high crime. When I go buy a house, I have no compunction about checking crime statistics. Property values (driven by demand, driven by purchasers, driven by crime statistics) clearly impact the economy. Is it “discriminatory” to check the statistics ahead of the purchase? Is it immoral? (“no” and “no”). When businesses look to open a new factory or a new store I guarantee you they check out the crime statistics. Is this discriminatory, or good business?

If the businesses and civil rights groups want to fix the problem, and get off Microsoft’s “Ghetto list” then perhaps they should focus on crime, not technology and data mining … and free people using public information to make free choices about their free lives.

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One Response to Avoid the Ghetto App

  1. Leave it to me to care not a whit about the app controversy, and focus on the technological side. Some things to consider about “portable” GPS navigation of whatever brand: (1) the traffic service seems pretty useless to me, in part because of scenarios as you describe. When left to its own devices, I think the Garmin does pretty well. (2) More importantly, I tend to be suspicious of any use of a smart phone, of any brand, for in-car GPS navigation… unless the phone is placed in a fixed dashboard mount. Trying to look at a map on a hand-held phone is even worse than talking on one. Otherwise, you are potentially trading exposure to dangerous criminal elements for dangerous driving conditions.

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