• Jan 10, 2012
A new Microsoft mobile app may defy the Windows Phone s... A new Microsoft mobile app may defy the Windows Phone slogan in its discrimination. (Flickr: bobfamiliar)
Microsoft's newly-patented "avoid ghetto" app for GPS devices aims to help motorists steer clear of unsafe neighborhoods, but the concept's controversial nature has garnered ire from critics.

The feature for mobile phones tracks crime stats and local weather to help drivers planning their route. The brouhaha stems from the idea of avoiding certain areas based on socio-economic or racial make-up.

Apps exist for almost every driver whim these days: it's no tall order to track down the nearest gas station, 7-Eleven, or electric vehicle plug-in charger at the click of a button. But when issues of race and politics enter the fray, the applications lead to complications.

The racist element

The technological cordoning off of some neighborhoods as dangerous, as with the Microsoft app, can open a Pandora's box.

As Sarah E. Chinn, author of Technology and the Logic of American Racism, observes, the stats indicated in the app might be skewed to discriminate against particular demographics.

"It's pretty appalling," Chinn said of the app. "Of course, an application like this defines crime pretty narrowly, since all crimes happen in all kinds of neighborhoods. I can't imagine that there aren't perpetrators of domestic violence, petty and insignificant drug possession, fraud, theft, and rape in every area."

She points out that white-collar crime would not necessarily register on this app and as a result Microsoft "defines crime statistics as products of race and class identity."

On the other hand, consider how this app could potentially help wayward drivers in some cities. In Detroit, for example, the city has a central downtown from General Motors headquarters up Woodward Avenue to Ford Field and Comerica Park where comparatively little crime happens. But just a few blocks outside that area, and a driver can find himself amidst streets of abandoned buildings and street-gang territory.

Noting that the majority of violent crime occurs between people who know each other and that this "avoid ghetto" feature wouldn't necessarily increase a driver's safety, Chinn suggested an alternative app.

"A more useful app would be for young black men to be able to map blocks with the highest risks of their being pulled over or stopped on the street by police," Chinn said. "That phenomenon affects many more people than the rare occurrences of random violence against motorists driving through 'bad' neighborhoods."

A driver's right to safety

That said, drivers are entitled to take the best and safest route possible whether being alerted of accident-prone intersections or weather changes that could alter road conditions.

The issue of safety gets touchy, though, when the race issue exacerbates the controversy.

"All of this geo-fencing has an element of engendering an element of paranoia and creepiness," said Roger C. Lanctot, a senior analyst at Strategy Analytics focusing on telematics.

Still, Lanctot views the apps as potentially useful.

"We've all had that experience when you take the wrong exit and go, 'Oh shoot,' because you end up in a neighborhood you shouldn't be in," he said. "Should you look down at the GPS and have a red flag with an exclamation point, 'Get out!'?"

In principle, this app from Microsoft centers on driver and passenger safety through preventative alerts: in the same way that Megan's Law requires convicted sex offenders to have personal information such as their name and address made public, Lanctot says, drivers should have a right to know when they are passing so-dubbed high-risk areas.

"I hate to say it because of the racial implication element," Lanctot said, "but what father wouldn't want such a capability for their daughter. I've seen plenty of dads having their daughters call them every half-hour: 'Where are you?' 'Where are you?' They would have more piece of mind if they knew their daughters had an app to avoid driving through bad areas."

A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment.

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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 488 Comments
      • 2 Years Ago
      Hey seems like someone gets offended about anything and everything. This is absolutely NOT racist. How in the world can you pin racist on the word Ghetto? Give me a break, A ghetto is a section of a city predominantly occupied by a group who live there, especially because of social, economic, or legal issues. The term was originally used in Venice to describe the area where Jews were compelled to live. The term may refer to an overcrowded urban area often associated with specific ethnic or racial populations living below the poverty line. From a statistical perspective, ghettos are typically high crime areas relative to other parts of the city. <<< Did you Notice it said by "a group" it didn't specify Black people. It does however specify "different ethnic populations living poor" and "high crime areas".
      • 2 Years Ago
      Look , if the app informs my "black ass" where not to go fine !! if not then you have a problem microsoft !! i MEAN theres some places i dont wanna be, ghetto or trailer park !!
      • 2 Years Ago
      God I hate political correctness
      • 2 Years Ago
      One or two more generations and yall will be extinct wont be no need for no apps. Finally we will have the place to ourselves---Low brain cell folks will be gone.
      • 2 Years Ago
      i dont see the app as racist as it maps by crime rate and excludes race altogether as i understand it. i do however see this comment from the artical as very rasict. "A more useful app would be for young black men to be able to map blocks with the highest risks of their being pulled over or stopped on the street by police," Chinn said. "That phenomenon affects many more people than the rare occurrences of random violence against motorists driving through 'bad' neighborhoods."
      • 2 Years Ago
      Gosh! I'm so sick of people playin' the stupid race card when it isn't even relevant! The app doesn't say, "Oh, there is a predominantly black neighborhood coming up. Be afraid, be very afraid!"!! Geez...hoping it would keep me out of neighborhoods where some of the Oriental gangs are 'cause they are NASTY dudes! I agree with Rob...PC sucks!
      tjj1030
      • 2 Years Ago
      As long as the app steers me clear of any Churche's Chicken joints in Chicago, you know, the one's famous for shot outs and around Washington, DC, its ok with me.
      joemensa
      • 3 Years Ago
      statistics are not racist
      • 3 Years Ago
      If avoiding a dangerous area is common sense. Anyone calling it racism is stupid.
      corvette9979
      • 3 Years Ago
      I got this App and it told me to steer clear of Gwinnett Co. Ga. I am so glad I got this app. If you don't get this app just remember to stay away from Gwinnett Co, Ga. Goverment corruption, illeagal tacos just hang out at gas stations and Home Depot's. Picking what trash companys can opperate and getting a kickback from them. But the real kicker here is turning 85 into a toll road. Tax payers already paid for it. Gwinnett is not great.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I'm black. Grew up there. Don't want to go back, especially in a strange city. I would buy that app.
      David
      • 3 Years Ago
      Why does eveyone think when people say "GHETTO, they are referring to black people. Now I am not a racist at all, but black people get offended and say "Thats Racist" on every little thing. This is America, deal with it.
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