City Desk

“Avoid The Ghetto” With Microsoft’s New Patented GPS Technology

Microsoft is getting some notice for a new "avoid the unsafe areas" patent it's received for GPS technology targeting pedestrians (the tech also lets people know about harsh temperatures—something smartphones do anyway, right?). Gizmodo has no problem with the tech, noting: "If you're in an unknown part of town, it's reassuring to know where you are going. It's even better to know what you're walking into."

Which, sure, sounds reasonable. Until you think about it for more than 30 seconds. Unless they're traveling abroad, most people aren't walking around completely unfamiliar areas. I find it hard to believe many pedestrians will take the long way around to avoid a sketchy 'hood—either they'll go by car or bike or public transit—and if they're diverted by only a few blocks, then what's the point? The borders of criminal activity aren't hard-and-fast.

And not that this is Microsoft's business, but what's the value in diverting foot traffic away from areas that could use more of it—except to play on the fears of people who probably wouldn't get caught dead in those areas anyway?

Photo by Darrow Montgomery / Illustration by Shani Hilton

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  •!/TamaraPalmera Tamara Palmera

    I think it's a great idea. Not necessarily playing on fears, but just helpful to those who aren't familiar with their surroundings. When I first moved to DC and started walking my dog around the neighborhood, I had no idea that turning certain corners would land me on more or less unsavory blocks. I don't live in "the hood," but I saw a woman robbed on my street within the first few months of living here. With all the stories you hear of "she was in the wrong place at the wrong time," it's nice to have the option of avoiding those places that most likely pose a higher risk when all you want to do is go for a walk.

  • Julian Sanchez

    I'd think the effect of this would actually be to increase pedestrian traffic overall (if not through high crime areas). People might routinely use GPS to look up a location even in an area they know well, but walking directions are only really useful when you ARE in an unfamiliar city (or part of the city). As Shani observes, those are precisely the circumstances under which risk-averse visitors will default to taking a cab or public transit when they're uncertain know how safe it would be to walk. If they're assured that whatever walking route their GPS device gives them won't take them through a high crime area, going on foot becomes more attractive.

  • Richard Cranium

    This will help out-of-towners locate prostitution and illegal drugs more easily.

  • Lawry

    During my first visit to Vancouver, BC, in the years before smart phones and handheld GPS devices, the clerk on duty at the youth hostel in downtown Vancouver gave me a map of the neighborhood, and after finding out I was walking, he drew a big red X through the center of a specific neighborhood.

    When I asked why, he said to me "They have nothing left to lose. Stay out of their neighborhood." Was he wrong for giving me advice that kept me from walking into trouble? I don't think so. And you have to realize how effingly polite Canadians are - if they say something is dangerous, believe them.

  • Tina

    "Unless they're traveling abroad, most people aren't walking around completely unfamiliar areas."

    This makes no sense. DC is filled with tourists who travel by foot. Some "up & coming" such as H St. NE are blocks from some of the most violent areas of the city that most locals might know to avoid.

    This would be a great help for runners. I run in almost every city I visit. While I try to stay on a main corridor it would help to have information light this.

  • Elemental5

    As to, "but what's the value in diverting foot traffic away from areas that could use more of it—except to play on the fears of people who probably wouldn't get caught dead in those areas anyway?"

    The correct answer in Jeopardy style (because jeopardy is what we are talking about) is "What is the difference betweeen living and dying?"

  • Mike Licht

    If this Microsoft program relies on crime statistics alone it will steer folks away from two DC areas with lots of street crime, Georgetown and Chinatown. Fat chance.

  • Leelah James

    Does this technology take into consideration how a neighborhood's safety has changed over time, giving us some kind of timeline for relative safety? How often does it update it's crime statistics? But my main concern is how this may discourage good will among different communities when class, race, and opportunity often divide them.

    And by the way, when I travel abroad in what appears to be an unsafe neighborhood, I just go the other way. I don't waste time looking at my smartphone.

  • David Gaines

    How can I register my neighborhood as a "dangerous" neighborhood to keep the tourists and out-of-towners from taking up all the parking spaces?

  • Lisa Dugger

    They stole my idea!!! :) As a business traveller I rely on my GPS to get me through cities that I have never visited. Many times I have called my husband and said "why can't my GPS keep me out of the GHETTO!" This is a great idea and will ensure strangers', to a town, safety!!!!

  • Craig

    Try going into Baltimore, a little too far away from the harbor, and then typing CVS into your GPS. Oh, only 3 miles away to the north? That's not so bad! But as you enter a part of Baltimore that looks like worse than any pictures I've seen of an Iraq warzone, you'll seriously start thinking about when was the last time you got maintenance on your car. Do you have enough gas? For the love of God, what will you do if you get a flat? That must have been the 10th crack-whore you've counted in 3 minutes. Then you see the CVS and realize, maybe you should drive back to the Inner Harbor and try again.

    I was also leaving the Fireworks in DC one year, and heading home. I went through a ghetto in SW because I didn't know better yet, and on three separate occasions, people would run into the street and set off fireworks whenever drivers stopped at a stop-light. One guy set off a firework "underneath" a taxi in front of me. Fireworks were just spraying out of all sides of the bottom of the taxi until the taxi just peeled out. At that point, I just said "screw this", and peeled out with the taxi, and blew through about 5 red lights to get out of there. My car was less than 3 months old, and I didn't want any fireworks to be set off underneath it.

    So yeah ... I would absolutely get an "avoid ghetto" GPS.