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.