Inside the Sketch Factory

Sketch Factor 1

This essay is based on an interview with the makers of SketchFactor that was originally conducted for Paste Magazine. The transcript is available upon request. 

After our first year of college, a high school friend and I rendezvoused during the summer and gleefully exchanged notes, mostly about our new social environments. Though our experiences were different – he went to a large state school (University of Georgia) and I went to a much smaller private school (Mercer University) – they were also strikingly similar, especially in regard to race. Both of our schools had a significant white majority, a sharp contrast to our high school, which was overwhelmingly black. And both schools were directly adjacent to public housing, palpable urban decay and the relatively poor black people that lived under those circumstances. In other words, we both went to schools where black poverty was in the hinterlands.

One of the words that was commonly used to describe these hinterlands – which, I should note, were hinterlands only if you made our schools the center of the universe – was sketchy, sometimes just shortened to “sketch.” After a year of ambient exposure to this word, almost exclusively when in the company of white students, we both knew what it meant: ghetto, hood, poor, scary, black, us. The constellation of bigotry is never difficult to trace.

SketchFactor, a new app that aims to offer walkers an opportunity to traverse cities safely, without encountering “sketchy” areas, seems to want to distance itself from that constellation of bigotry, embracing the alleged openness of sketchiness. When asked why sketchiness deserves its own app, Allison McGuire, one of SketchFactor’s founders, says, “Sketchiness is universal in its appeal. People experience sketchy things all over, whether it’s totally weird and bizarre, to something that’s potentially dangerous, to consistent issues in a specific area, so the reason that we went with SketchFactor as opposed to ‘SafetyFactor’ or something like that is because it’s interesting, it’s universal, and people understand it and it applies to different things.”

McGuire is confident about the self-evidence of sketchiness and about what SketchFactor can do, but as the founder of a start-up, it is her job to be confident. What does SketchFactor actually do? How does it really work?

It begins with an exchange. To download the app, users share their email address, age, gender and name – standard app protocols. Users also must share their location, which is the app’s most crucial piece of information. Location data allows SketchFactor to suggest routes to users who want help navigating safely, and record and display “sketch points,” places where “sketchy” experiences were reported. These reports can be filed under four categories: weird, dangerous, protip and something else.

Sketch Factor screenshot categories

These features work in concert: each time a user submits a report in an area, future users in that area who use the app’s “suggested routes” feature will see more sketch points, which are color-coded according to the category they were filed under. Likewise, users who use these suggested routes will be able to upvote or downvote the sketch points, depending on their experiences of the area and the seeming authenticity of the report.

In addition to using its own crowdsourced data to suggest and display routes, the app also uses publicly available crime data, which is sourced from city and municipal databases (notably, not all municipalities provide or collect such data; so some SketchFactor users may be getting suggested routes based solely on user submissions). This publicly available data is not visually displayed in the app because, as SketchFactor co-founder, Daniel Herrington, reveals, “We were afraid we would overwhelm users with too much information.”

Considering the app’s visual interface, this is a strange statement. Because of the hyperlocalized nature of the app’s reporting mechanisms, a single block can be bursting with sketch points. And this surfeit makes the app stronger. McGuire makes this relationship between data and excess clear when she says, “The data gets stronger and the analytics gets stronger, the more information that we have.”

Given these contradictions, the real conflict seems to be between the app’s social intentions and its business intentions. Socially, the app is intended to be a tool to “empower users to decide what they want to see and what they want to avoid,” says Herrington. But if that were the case, why would the app inundate users with crowdsourced sketch points rather than publicly collected data? This data must be at least somewhat accountable if it is so fully integrated into the infrastructure of the app. McGuire even says, “When it comes to publicly available data, you can’t really vote on that.” So why not present such incontrovertible data by itself? Chicago, a city that Herrington and McGuire both praise for the availability of its data, released its data a few years ago and there is an entire civic group, Open City, that is dedicated to presenting that data in interesting ways, specifically through apps. Why is SketchFactor not so open?

McGuire offers a partial answer to this question when she repeatedly declines to reveal SketchFactor’s “community partners,” organizations that she cites throughout the interview as integral to shaping the app’s development. According to McGuire, these organizations represent a range of interests, “ from looking at LGBT violence on a city level, to looking at sexual harassment, to looking at…druggings in bars, to looking at racial profiling, to looking at decriminalization, to looking at community gardens.” This range is quite impressive, but it is quite suspect for community organizations, especially with such likeable interests, to be making partnerships in secret. McGuire suggests that this secrecy is a preemptive response to SketchFactor’s predictable negative press, explaining, “We went out to market deciding that it would be best to keep our partners under wraps because we knew that we were going to get some attention and we wanted to make sure that we worked out some of the kinks and communicated that to our partners.” Apparently, McGuire’s confidence in the app is not widely shared..

The real reason for the guardedness of SketchFactor’s partners emerges when McGuire discusses what happens to the data that’s collected by the app: “We want to continue to partner with community groups that are advocating on certain issues that reflect their priorities and we can give them hard data – ‘here’s how other people are experiencing this problem in your city or on your block.’ So that’s one way. The other way is providing that information to companies that can benefit from it, such as energy companies. People can benefit from whether or not an area is well-lit or poorly lit, even if the energy company says, well we have five lights on this block. We can say, well people keep saying it’s not a well-lit block. And they say well maybe we need seven lights.”

Though the street lights example is appealing, to put it bluntly, SketchFactor is in the business of data commerce: the app collects data and peddles it to interested and potentially interested parties. Its vague, “universal appeal” allows it to collect a range of data, a universe, if you will, and its use of public databases allows that data to be paired with already-corroborated data, subsequently increasing its value, expanding the universe.

This is not a novel business model or even a particularly upsetting one, especially in the tech world. Yet, there is a palpable irresponsibility in how cavalierly SketchFactor evades its accountability towards how it solicits its data. This attitude is on full-display when Herrington matter-of-factly says, “It’s the crowd, so the crowd’s gonna use it as they’re gonna use it.” This fatalism completely ignores the fact that the crowd is incited to speak in a certain way at the prompting of the app. Having categories like, “weird,” “dangerous,” and “protip” encourages particular kinds of responses, especially when these responses are all filed under the vague notion of sketchiness. In fact, “something else,” the fourth and most unspecified possible report category, is tellingly the least used.

Admittedly, McGuire and Herrington do highlight thoughtful features of the app such as downvoting and upvoting and a prompt that asks users using potentially offensive words, “Are you sure you want to post that? Some people might find it offensive.” The plucky pair also details their own backend tracking of words that are consistently flagged as offensive, categories that are used to post offensive content and users who receive frequent downvotes, all worthwhile features. Yet, they are also perfectly complacent with these features, as if an app that by definition leverages peoples’ vague and potentially unfounded feelings of uneasiness is morally neutral because the makers of the app simply intended it to be.

Defending these intentions, McGuire believes that SketchFactor is a step forward, comparing SketchFactor’s approach to approaches from the past. “What people have done time and time and time again before us, is that they have gone in and they have painted neighborhoods broad brushstroke as safe, unsafe, good, bad, and that has really harmed neighborhoods and helped neighborhoods. So what we’re looking to do is be really really specific about saying here’s where there’s a specific problem occurring, or hey here’s where something really funny keeps occurring or here’s where something we should look at continues to happen. And how can we better address these things?” McGuire’s comparison between broad brushstrokes and pointillist sketch points is almost convincing, but she seems to be forgetting that both techniques still produce full portraits.

Sketch Factor Washington DC

[Washington DC]

In other words, hyperlocalization is not a cure-all. When I was an undergraduate, the first “sketchy” place I was told about was a particular stoplight that was a few blocks from the edge of campus. According to campus lore, if a frightened student decided to run the light and was caught, the ticket would be forgiven. I’m pretty sure that this was untrue, but I mention it because the alleged sketchiness of that neighborhood was not contained at the stoplight. The lore was a parable for how to act at any place in the neighborhood. Sketch points emit sketchiness; they do not enclose it.

Above all, I wonder how these emissions affect the people who are adjacent to them. Herrington reminds me that SketchFactor is aimed at explorers and wanderers, but what about residents? What does it mean to live in a neighborhood that is marred with sketch points? To put it differently, what does it mean to live in the hinterlands? As someone who was always potentially a resident of hinterlands, just by virtue of being black, I can confidently say that it isn’t a positive development. In fact, I think it’s pretty racist.

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