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.


This is Why Trayvon Was Murdered

Last night, before going to bed to dream of spilled olive oil and socks that don’t fit, I signed into Facebook and read this:
“I Love Macon.
I love getting felt up every time I go dancing.
I love hearing police sirens every night.
I love stopping at red lights, and locking my doors because I’m afraid of getting carjacked.
I love being panhandled every time I go grocery shopping.
I love hearing gunshots.
I love having more pawn shops than clothing stores.
I love homophobic racist sexist old money rednecks.
I love it that “culture” is one theater.
I love disobeying my GPS when it tries to take me through the ghetto.
I love being scared of every black person I meet outside of campus.
I love the asinine way they handle rape victims.
I love hearing about Macon doctors laughing at AIDS victims.
I love the confederate flag.
I love when my air conditioning unit is stolen for copper.
I love it when my house is robbed.
I love it when my roommates are beaten.
I love it when the police do nothing.
I love it when the only safe place to survive is the “Mercer Bubble”

And what I love most of all is when idiotic “I Love Macon” pledges try to force me to speak positively about this city.”

The person who posted this is a friend/acquaintance/guy I know who goes to my school. Before proceeding, allow me to lay out some Important Preliminary Facts:  my school is 70-75%  white (mostly middle  or upper-middle class), my school has an open campus that is surrounded by poor black folk, the poster of this status is white and he was responding to this campaign.

If you didn’t read that article, go back and read it now. It’s important to read because it clearly demonstrates two important points: the people behind this campaign are aware that Macon’s problems are not necessarily unique and they are trying to confront those problems with positive energy. I don’t think the campaign is brilliant or anything, but considering how frequently I hear people shit on the city for no good reason, I think it’s in good spirit, especially since the campaign is aware of its silliness. The poster of this very offensive Facebook status, who I will now refer to as Sunbeam Guy, is understandably skeptical of the campaign. Honestly, amidst some of his racism and classism, there are some good points. No doubt, Macon can do better.

That being said, most of the problems he outlines are personal problems, like the problem of his racism. It depresses me when I hear about white folks at my school being scared of “ghetto” black folks. You know why? BECAUSE GHETTONESS IS ARBITRARY. The only criteria used to determined “ghettoness” are familiarity and black skin. This means two things: 1) at all times I am one step removed from being the ghetto, fear-inducing Other and 2) All of my social relationships [with these particular white folks] are solely predicated upon  my being familiar.  In other words, I am “safe” solely because I can be identified. I am one of the “good ones,” the trustworthy ones. Based on this type of racism I can be assured that if I encounter a white person who doesn’t know me or who doesn’t identify me as a member of the community, I am instantly transfigured from Stephen Kearse to Trayvon Martin. This is unacceptable.

In fact, this is why Trayvon Martin was murdered. This fear of black bodies, this need to identity them, to “confirm” their right to belong is exactly why he was murdered. You may think that you fear black people outside of campus, but the truth is that you fear the black folks on campus as well. Like I said earlier, the only difference between me and them is the fact that you know me. Literally, all it takes for you to fear me is a brief moment of misrecognition. That’s fucked up.

I don’t want you to fear me. In fact, I’d rather you feel indifferent to me than to subject me to this type of prejudicial surveillance. But my feelings don’t matter, apparently. You’ve independently decided how to deal with me and my “ilk.”

I’m not the spokesperson for black people (hint: there’s no such thing), but Guy, I have a message for you and people who think like you, specifically Mercerians: there’s no such thing as “The Mercer Bubble.” The Mercer Bubble is a racist, classist, provincial, insular, narrow-minded, stupid, deluded, arbitrary and ironically unsafe chimera generated by people like you who arrogantly believe that safety can somehow be guaranteed.

What’s truly funny to me is that until your retreat into the bubble, I hadn’t realized how unsafe I am. For 4 years, I’ve walked around campus thinking that I was among folks with the ability to think. Turns out I was wrong. At any given moment, without thought, you and your people (by this I mean the 50+ people who liked your Facebook and the dozens who would have liked it if they had read it) can resort to knee-jerk, parochial and bigoted views and indefinitely suspend my identity and self-determination as well as your own ability to think. How silly of me. I’ve been telling myself that I’m Stephen Kearse, but the truth is that I’m Trayvon Martin.

Give it Up

The following is an email I received from my school’s police department. It contains a host of problems, some of them grammatical. It is also slightly funny.


On Saturday morning  at approximately 1:24 a.m. two Mercer Law School students were walking home from downtown Macon.  At the intersection of Cherry and New Streets, they were approached by two black males.  One of the males pulled a gun, pointed it at the face of one student, and said “Give it up!”

The students were unharmed but they were robbed of personal belongings.

Mercer Police strongly advises everyone to avoid walking in off campus public areas late at night or in the early morning hours.

Why the red and purple fonts? I don’t know. Nevertheless, we’re not here to address email aesthetics, so let’s talk business. The email begins with “Crime Alert!” Since when did one armed robbery warrant such a sensational declaration? This robbery is not the 5th armed robbery in the past month or the 40th armed  robbery within the past year. It is an isolated event. Part of me wants to believe that the email was given this heading just to make sure it was not overlooked like every other email sent out by my school’s police department, but my intuition tells me something else is at play.

I don’t like to rely on just intuition though, so let’s delve deeper. Why does the email give such an explicit account of the robbery? “Give it up!” said one of the allegedly black male assailants after “pulling his gun.” “Give it up” is not some special catchphrase. I imagine stick-ups around the country involve this phrase. Why wouldn’t they? It’s easy to say and easy to understand. My point is that this is an incredibly unnecessary detail that only serves to escalate the tone of the “alert.”

Furthermore, why are solely race and gender mentioned? No other descriptive details are offered. Height, age, hair color, clothing, eye color, skin tone, and any other potentially useful details are all elided. On one hand, perhaps the victims simply  did not notice these things. In moments of fear, certain things stand out and other are forgotten. On the other hand, as enforcers of the law, officers are trained to do as much as they can to ensure that the law is enforced. Ergo, these omitted details would have somehow been fleshed out.

All this email will do is increase [white] people’s fears and black people’s alienation. That email’s description is so goddamn vague that I could be a possible suspect. Even if students do not act wary when around me, the possibility that they could -solely because I’m black –  makes me feel distant, unwelcome, even guilty. Moreover, the details of the perpetrators are given just because. There is no call to help with identification or anything. Nevertheless, for some unknown reason, these guys’ race just had to be mentioned.

Mercer already has a tenuous relationship with the surrounding community. Admittedly, through the efforts of students, faculty, staff and members of  that community, this relationship is improving. Thus,  when emails like this are sent out, emails that explicitly say that the community is hostile and dangerous, these efforts are undermined. In reality the areas around campus are just as dangerous or as safe as the areas on campus.  It’s an open campus. Accordingly, I take steps – no matter where I am – to decrease the chance of something bad happening to me. Nevertheless, I am patently aware that at any given time, something awful can happen to me, in spite of my efforts at prevention. As a community, as people, we Mercer students need to accept that. You are never entirely safe. With that knowledge, you can choose to futilely enclose yourself in structures  [like racism] to “protect” yourself or you can cautiously venture out into the world and accept that you, like everyone else, are susceptible to the laws of probability.

In short, I ask that you take this notion of absolute security and give it up. It does nothing but cause you to retreat into questionable, ultimately harmful ways of dealing with the world, particularly other people. Undoubtedly, that email was sent with good intentions, but those intentions belie a skewed vision of the world. If college students, the supposed “future” of the nation are experiencing the world in such a distorted manner, we’re further away from a “post-racial” world than I thought.

By the way, is it just me or does “post-racial” sound like a really bad cereal?