Here’s What’s Wrong with a GhettoTracker App
It went live, it caused controversy, it’s back: last week, a website called GhettoTracker.com appeared, purporting to be a way for local residents to crowdsource information about their communities and identify which areas were, as the site put it, “ghetto” — i.e., “unsafe.”
If the site’s name and choice of words didn’t make it clear enough what was meant by “unsafe,” a stock photo of a smiling family all of whose members were white drove home the point and potentially qualified GhettoTracker.com as the “most offensive startup of all time,” according to Pandodaily.
The outcry on the Internet over the racist and classist references on GhettoTracker.com came fast and fierce, CNN reports:
Ghetto Tracker’s ratings of neighborhoods weren’t based on any hard crime data, just the impressions and biases of regular people.
A Facebook page for the company featured multiple offensive “joke” posts. One showed two young black men looking in a car under a warning about “#ghetto reports in #tallahassee.” Another linked to an article about “ghetto booty.”
The app’s creator has been revealed to be David Foster, CEO of a site called Hubze, according to a Skype exchange between him and FOX 40.
After the controversy, Foster first rebranded GhettoTracker.com as Good Part of Town.com and posted a defiant message about his intentions, saying that his “website is not about race or income, as some of the PC myrmidons have asserted” but rather about “safety.” Foster created the site because his “wife is in pharmaceutical sales and travels with her job … she doesn’t know many of the areas she travels too before she gets there.”
As of this week, GhettoTracker.com has returned, with a graphic-less homepage and the logos of CNN, Fox, etc. across the top as places the site has (albeit in a not-necessarily flattering way) been mentioned on. An “About” page now features different images of families (some with persons of color) with heterosexual parents (including the original photo of a white family).
It is hard to argue about looking out for your own safety and those of family and friends. The internet uproar over the insensitivity, racism and classicism (intended or not) of a site like GhettoTracker.com was justified. It was also a reminder about how technology has crept into our lives to the point that we may rely on an app made by some anonymous developer to make crucial decisions about how we go about our lives. As The Atlantic points out,
… in the growing field of geo-web applications, incorporating safety judgments into navigational aids is becoming increasingly common. Accusations of reinforcing racist or classist stereotypes could be lobbed at any of those apps.
For instance, Microsoft’s Pedestrian Route Production technology was quickly nicknamed “the avoid-ghetto app” by the media as it allowed users to determine walking routes based on “weather information, crime statistics, [and] demographic information.” Patented in 2012, the application states the obvious, that “it can be more dangerous for a pedestrian to enter an unsafe neighborhood then [sic] a person in a vehicle since a pedestrian is more exposed and it is more difficult for her to leave an unsafe neighborhood quickly.”
Yes, being in a mechanized vehicle or on a bicycle means that you’ll move faster than you would on foot. The patent application also makes a presumption about who is more liable to be in danger in such an “unsafe neighborhood.” This would be a pedestrian who is a woman because she is ”more exposed” such that it would be all the “more difficult for her to leave an unsafe neighborhood quickly.”
As Jim Thatcher, a geographer at Clark University, says to The Atlantic, geo-web apps are “generally presented to us as ‘neutral’” and lead us to “often forget to consider the motivations and biases at work behind the scenes.” It is disingenuous to say that such apps and algorithms provide “unbiased” results about an area that is “dangerous” or that is “safe.”
Whoever was behind Microsoft’s Pedestrian Route Production seems to have made quite a few assumptions about how to keep women safe. Foster denies that race or class had anything to do in the creation of GhettoTracker.com, but “ghetto” is hardly a word without a lot of associations, as is the notion of “tracking” — of “keeping tabs on” — where those “unsafe-to-certain-individuals” areas are.
For that matter, GoodPartofTown.com, the website that Foster put up to temporarily replace GhettoTracker.com, is, arguably, just as offensive in the way that a phrase like someone “living on the wrong side of the tracks” can be. We need only to recall the killing of Trayvon Martin to be reminded that what’s “safe” to some can be downright fatal for others and that apps and technology are no substitute for critical thinking and learning to detect and undo unconscious biases in ourselves.
Photo from Thinkstock