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New Smartphone App Is Designed to Help You Avoid “Sketchy” Neighborhoods

Most of those neighborhoods happen to be some of DC's more diverse areas, but app’s developers swear it’s not racist.
Daniel Herrington and Allison McGuire and a sketchy brick wall. Photograph courtesy SketchFactor.

As the latest entry in the mission to crowdsource everything, an iPhone app called SketchFactor claims to be building a comprehensive guide for city-dwellers who want to avoid “sketchy” areas. The app, which is publicly available Friday, is the creation of a pair of DC ex-pats now living in New York who say they just want to help their users find safe streets by assinging them “sketch factors” on a scale of 1 to 5.

Nice veneer, but the early data collected by SketchFactor reflects more urban paranoia verging on outright racial profiling. The developers, Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington, started testing it more than a year ago when they were still living in Washington and working out of downtown tech nest 1776. According to what they gathered from their beta testers, DC’s sketchiest neighborhoods are:

  • Columbia Heights
  • Adams Morgan
  • Bloomingdale
  • H Street, Northeast
  • Downtown

In other words, many neighborhoods where one is likely to find a racially mixed crowd, while most of upper Northwest DC—sometimes referred to as “Upper Caucasia”—is largely sketch-free. Many of the entries are broad dismissals of entire city blocks without much detail to them. The intersection of 14th Street and Columbia Road, Northwest, rates a SketchFactor of 4 thanks to “a lot of people hanging around” in the evening. The entry doesn’t say who those people are, but anyone who knows Columbia Heights knows it’s a decreasingly diverse neighborhood where working-class black and Hispanic populations have decreased while wealthier, often white residents move in.

“As far as we’re concerned, racial profiling is ‘sketchy’ and we are trying to empower users to report incidents of racism against them and define their own experience of the streets,” McGuire told Crain’s New York Business earlier this week. It’s nice that McGuire and Herrington take a dim view of racial profiling, but if their app takes off—and it’s currently a candidate to win $20,000 in a New York City-backed app contest—it’s tough to see McGuire’s claim panning out. In a brief phone call with Washingtonian, she admits sketchiness is an “entirely subjective” quality.

“If you ask anyone if they’ve experienced something sketchy, they’ll probably say yes,” McGuire says. “And then they’ll tell you a long crazy story.”

So far, the story seems to be one of avoiding places where you might run into someone who looks different. On their website, McGuire and Herrington say their app is “exclusively focused on improving city exploration on foot.” But with McGuire openly saying there cannot be any objective conclusions derived from SketchFactor, it’s tough to see how this app actually helps anyone.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.