Wednesday, September 11, 2013 Racist Or Valuable Public Service?!?

I travel fairly regularly as part of my day job, and often those travels take me to small towns and cities I'm not intimately familiar with. Since I'm the curious type (and often on the road alone), I always find some time to venture beyond my hotel after hours, usually in search of a non-chain restaurant for dinner, or some keepsakes to take back home to my kids.[1]

Since I often know little about these places other than what I dig up on Wikipedia, by Negro Antennae are always up as I'm driving around. The worse possible way to go out is to get jacked by some fools at a stoplight in rural Kansas, so I'm usually very cautious. I know all the usual tell-tale signs of an area where you might wanna be very aware of your surroundings. When you start seeing a bunch of carryout fried chicken places, bail bonds, churches, bootleg cell phone stores, and people openly pushin' weight on the corner, you know you've f*cked around and ended up in the hood'. I'm wise enough to recognize the warning signs and act accordingly. "Act accordingly" usually just means roll up the windows, lock the doors, and find a good parking spot close to said carryout fried chicken place. Again, I'm well versed in this, so I'm know what I'm getting into, and I made it to age 40, so I'm either very lucky or very observant.

If you're not one blessed with an eye for all things ghetto though, you could accidentally f*ck around and end up on the 11 o'clock news. Thankfully, for tourists, suburbanites, and other's not versed in ghettology, there is a fine new website to help you out. And it's got a lot of people very upset.
A service called "Ghetto Tracker" appeared online at the beginning of this week and quickly drew criticism for its racist and classist overtones. Shortly after, the site was renamed "Good Part of Town." Its creator, who would only identify himself as a 30-something-year-old in Tallahassee, told Gawker: "This was originally seriously developed as a travel tool and the name 'Ghetto Tracker' was meant to be something that people would remember."

The basic premise of Ghetto Tracker/Good Part of Town -- to crowdsource travel advice – actually isn’t so outrageous, but the framing, even without the word "Ghetto" in the name, and the intention -- to label whole geographic areas as "good" or "bad," "safe" and "unsafe" -- make the operation distasteful.

Yet 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. "In any form," writes Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities, "this idea toes a touchy line between a utilitarian application of open data and a sly wink toward people who just want to steer clear of 'those kinds of neighborhoods.'"

Microsoft’s Pedestrian Route Production technology, patented in January 2012 – and immediately dubbed "the avoid-ghetto app" by many in the media -- was designed to one day let Windows Phone users filter walking routes according to "weather information, crime statistics, [and] demographic information." According to the language of the patent, such filtering is useful because "if it is relatively cold outside, then a pedestrian is far more likely to feel an impact then [sic] if a vehicle equipped with a heating system protected her. Moreover, 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." It makes sense to keep safety in mind while navigating an unfamiliar area on foot, but letting a computer algorithm divert you from a particular neighborhood on account of statistics is problematic.
No need to lie, I'm not too happy about a website called "Ghetto Tracker". That's mad insensitive, racist, and pretty damn corny to boot.

But let's keep it one hunned: racial overtones aside, isn't it actually okay to give people information on areas where they might be somewhat less safe? Not to discourage them from going there (or at least I'd hope not), but simply to give them a heads up on what they're getting into.[2]

Obviously, you can get stuck up or robbed anywhere. My inlaws live in what many people would consider "The Hood", and I've never had any sort of issues when I've visited or stayed the night over there.[3] My car's been broken into in the lily white presumably safe suburbs where I've spent most of my life more times than I can count though. Again, information is power, but it's not guarantee of future outcome.[4]

Question: Is "Ghetto Tracker" racist, or merely a way of informing people about what they're getting into? Do you know the telltale signs that you've made a wrong turn and ended up in the hood? Give us your best Ghetto Safari Survival Tips.

[1] My children have the most awesome sports memorabilia/attire collection ever. And before you ask, yes, I realize I'm buying random stuff like this mostly for me, not them. I already know this.

[2] Trailer Park/Biker Bar/Klan Rally Tracker™ would be helpful for many of the same reasons, albeit for a far smaller audience.

[3] Dear Everyone: "Southeast DC" is not a monolith. It's not all called "Anacostia", and it's not all "hood". There are pockets you should generally avoid, but it is an otherwise largely safe section of the city full of honest, hardworking people. And yes, there are million dollar homes East Of The River. Not everyone over there is poor, nor is everyone over there black.

[4] An easy way to quickly figure out the racial composition of a city you're visiting for the first time: drive by the courthouse and/or the department of health. Peep the line outside. Process accordingly.

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