A Microsoft App in the works called “Pedestrian Route Production,” that would provide the user walking directions around a city that avoid “unsafe neighborhood[s],” has been deemed racist by an number of organizations, notably the NAACP of Dallas. Dallas NAACP President Juanita Wallace has pledged “I’m going to be up in arms about it if it happens,” comparing the app to “gerrymandering.” The app is patented, but is not yet available to the public. Microsoft refrains from commenting on already-patented applications.
The app would provide walking directions with large blue dots over areas in which ten or more criminal incidents have occurred over the past 12 months. I assume that this must be a very small area, limited to one or two particularly dangerous blocks, because Capitol Hill has had over 2,000 crimes last year, according to SPD crime records—which would mean one of Seattle’s most vibrant neighborhoods earns a big old blue dot. For some, the implications of this app are irrefutable: avoid the ghetto, avoid “black and hispanic neighborhoods,” avoid low-income areas. For others, this particular feature fits logically within a GPS app that also helps pedestrians avoid impassable roads and dangerous weather conditions—remaining safe is as much avoiding violent crime as it is avoiding busy streets with no sidewalks, for example.
Certainly there are benefits to a map app that keeps tabs on road closures, one-way streets, dead ends, and dangerous pedestrian intersections. Last year I found myself in LA trying to cross a four lane highway without a crosswalk because my phone’s directions app didn’t account for LA’s car-centric culture.
Of course, the app makes no literal mention of the word ghetto, and many have been quick to come to its defense, even African-American writer Maurice Garland, who 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.” Undoubtedly many of us have received advice from friends to avoid certain places in certain cities based on their own personal experiences.
I find the implications of this app more subtly disturbing—if we never get lost, how will we ever discover? If every move we make is filtered through a phone that counsels us to avoid entire swaths of inhabited city blocks, how will we ever stumble upon those awesome dive bars or bakeries or bookstores that make living in these crowded cities worth it all?
Juanita Wallace (pictured on the left) provides a more compelling argument than just never getting lost—she cites damage to local economies as one of the more concrete arguments against the app. “It’s almost like gerrymandering, she said. ‘It’s stereotyping for sure and without a doubt; I can’t emphasize enough, it’s discriminatory.”
Tourism looks to either win or lose, depending on your opinion, and one Dallas tourist already spoke out against it: “[The neighborhood] may have a high crime problem, but have some great cultural and social things you can do there.”
Microsoft was awarded the patent for the app but it is not available on the market yet. There’s been no word from Microsoft reps on if the app will actually become an official product given the current dust-up.