Safety or Racial Profiling? | Microsoft’s “Avoid Ghetto App”

Posted by ada.lee & filed under Technology.

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Microsoft’s on the hot seat for being granted a patent for a new feature under its “Pedestrian Route Production” application. This new app feature uses violent crime rates to map out locations where crime rates are high, while offering navigation around these locations to help guide users safely through neighbourhoods.

That doesn’t sound too bad, eh? It was then revealed that the project was unofficially nicknamed the “Avoid Ghetto App”. Though the word “ghetto” doesn’t actually come up in any of the official documents, this drew heated allegations that the app is racist and discriminatory.

Is it just me, or does the name for the app seem to be straight out of a slapstick comedy? At first, I couldn’t quite understand the wave of debates on the app&mddash;is it focused on the casual nickname? To my Canadian ears, the word “ghetto” isn’t racially charged. “Violent crime” also doesn’t pop up as a race-specific inference. So are reactions based on subconsciously engrained presumptions on violent crime and race?


Sarah Chinn, University professor and author of Technology and the Logic of American Racism, argues that the app got racialized because United States is a “very racist country”; by that she means that when people say ‘violent crime’, the first linkage the public conjures up is a ‘dangerous black man or Latino man.’

Chinn points out that the myth that black men are more likely to commit violent crimes against random white strangers has become “an indelible part of America’s racial identity”. This app from Microsoft then, she says, will be used to reinforce racial assumptions about violent crimes that just aren’t true.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: Huffington Post’s Black Voices pointed out that FBI’s 2010 crime report showed that whites were arrested more often for violent crimes that year than any other race.

In that case, how effective will the app be in improving personal safety? How much of it will work with the racial profiling that’s already in place in the public?

Spatial discrimination is now digitalized—there’s an app for that.


Ada Lee is a sixth year Human Geography/International Relations student who is interested in people and what makes them tick. The list ranges from social justice to astrology. She tries to get by in life by getting high on ideas, breathing deeply, and dreaming vividly. Follow 0415ADA at your own risk.



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