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Thu January 19, 2012
Digital Life

This App Was Made For Walking — But Is It Racist?

Originally published on Wed January 25, 2012 6:03 pm

Microsoft is under fire this week over a patent it was granted that's been dubbed the "avoid ghetto" feature for GPS devices. The new feature is meant to help pedestrians avoid unsafe neighborhoods, bad weather and difficult terrain by taking information from maps, weather reports, crime statistics and demographics, and creating directions that, according to the patent, take "the user through neighborhoods with violent crime statistics below a certain threshold."

The word "ghetto" doesn't actually appear anywhere in Microsoft's "Pedestrian Route Production" patent, but a slew of headlines touting the incendiary "avoid ghetto" nickname have generated outrage. Some say the feature is racist, while others say it's simply the next step in GPS technology.

Sarah Chinn, author of Technology and the Logic of American Racism, says she understands why people might want a GPS feature like that to help them feel safe. But, she says, the new application will reinforce assumptions about violent crime that just aren't true.

"In much of dominant American culture, there's an assumption that criminality and being poor and not white go hand in hand," Chinn says. In reality, FBI crime statistics for 2010 show that whites were arrested more often for violent crimes that year than any other race.

The online world has seen bitter battles over the issue, with comments urging people to "just stay out of black and Hispanic neighborhoods." Others identified people who "naturally associate avoiding crime with avoiding blacks" as racist.

And then some, like Loop21.com editor Maurice Garland, poked a little fun at the controversy. Garland wrote a piece for the African-American website listing places he thought would likely show up as unsafe on the new software. No. 1 on his list was Flint, Mich., a city that also holds the No. 1 highest crime rate in the country, according to CQ Press' 2011 City Crime Ranking report.

Garland says, "I wouldn't be surprised if the entire city of Flint got a big red dot on the 'avoid ghetto' application."

He says some readers took offense at his piece, and of those readers, many were themselves people of color. But Garland says he thinks the feature is more classist than racist.

"I don't think anybody from any particular race is being singled out because they are using crime data to come up with these figures," Garland says. "If you don't want to end up in those places, I don't see anything wrong with somebody trying to help you out."

Industry analyst Rob Enderle says the new GPS feature has nothing to do with race or income — it's about technology doing for us what it's supposed to be doing.

"It's part of an overall effort to make navigation systems more intelligent so they keep you out of danger, whether you're driving or you're on foot," Enderle says.

Two years ago, Jeff Gilfelt created the ASBOrometer, an app that used government data to trace "anti-social behavior" in England. He says what matters is how the software is developed and the quality of the data it uses.

"If it's taking data about incidents of crime that directly impact public safety, there should be no racial or economic or class bias there," he says.

Gilfelt's app didn't generate the level of controversy the Microsoft patent has, but there was an app that came out in response to it. It's called the Awesometer, and its description says, "Rather than spreading fear and distrust, it gives hope, security and warm feelings."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Microsoft is facing criticism for a new app it has patented for GPS services. It has been dubbed the avoid ghetto feature. The technology is meant for pedestrians, to help them avoid bad weather, difficult terrain and what the patent describes as an unsafe neighborhood. As we hear from NPR's Allison Keyes, critics consider the feature nothing short of racist, while others insist it's simply the next step in GPS technology.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Let's be clear: The word ghetto doesn't appear anywhere in the patent. It's called pedestrian route production. Microsoft declined any comment. The technology in the patent will take information from maps, weather information, crime statistics and demographics, then create directions, quote, "taking the user through neighborhoods with violent crime statistics below a certain threshold." But a slew of headlines included the incendiary avoid ghetto nickname and generated some outrage.

SARAH CHINN: I was pretty appalled.

KEYES: Sarah Chinn is author of "Technology and the Logic of American Racism" and an English professor at Hunter College. Chinn says she understands why people might want such a GPS feature so they'd feel safe, but she says it reinforces assumptions about violent crime that aren't true. Chinn says the nickname the patent has picked up and the news coverage of the technology illustrate the assumption that it will steer you away from neighborhoods where blacks and Latinos live because those are bad neighborhoods.

CHINN: Even that immediate association is itself a symptom of the problem.

KEYES: Chinn says that storyline is so embedded in American society that people make what she calls that jump without even having to explain it.

CHINN: Which is to say we as white middle-class readers will immediately understand, you know, what this is all about.

KEYES: Chinn says we need to be able to distinguish between our prejudices and our assumptions and what's actually true. Though FBI crime stats for 2010 show that whites were arrested more often for violent crimes than any other race, Chinn says...

CHINN: In much of dominant American culture, there's an assumption that criminality and being poor and not white go hand and hand.

KEYES: On the Internet, there have been bitter battles with written comments urging people to, quote, "just stay out of black and Hispanic neighborhoods." Or others describing as racist people who, quote, "naturally associate avoiding crime with avoiding blacks." Of course, some folk, including loop21.com editor Maurice Garland, poked a little fun at the controversy.

MAURICE GARLAND: I mentioned Flint, Michigan.

KEYES: Garland posted a piece on the African-American website listing places he felt would likely show up as unsafe on the software. Flint had the highest crime rate in current city crime rankings by the CQ Press.

GARLAND: I wouldn't be surprised if the entire city of Flint got a big red dot on the avoid ghetto application.

KEYES: Garland says many of those offended by his posting about the technology were people of color, but he personally thinks the feature is more classist than racist.

GARLAND: I don't think anybody from any particular race is being singled out, I mean, because they are using crime data to come up with these figures. So I mean, you know, if you don't want to end up in those places, I mean, I don't see anything wrong with somebody trying to help you out.

ROB ENDERLE: I think it's something that users of the technology have been asking for for some time.

KEYES: Industry analyst Rob Enderle says the GPS feature in the patent has nothing to do with race or income. He says it's about technology doing for us what it's supposed to be doing.

ENDERLE: It's part of an overall effort to make navigation systems more intelligent, so they keep you out of danger whether you're driving or you're on foot.

KEYES: In England two years ago, Jeff Gilfelt created a similar app that also uses government data. He says what's important is how software is developed and the quality of data it uses.

JEFF GILFELT: If it's taking data about, you know, incidents of crime that, you know, directly impact public safety, there should be no racial or economic or class bias there.

KEYES: Gilfelt says his app didn't generate the level of controversy the Microsoft patent has. But there is an app that was created as an answer to his. It's called the Awesome Meter, and its description says it gives hope and security rather than spreading fear and distrust.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.