City Desk

Would The “Avoid The Ghetto” App Even Work?

We know that "avoid the ghetto" isn't really the name of the new Microsoft patented GPS technology—but it's a moniker that's stuck thanks to the app's job: Keep pedestrians from walking into crime-ridden areas. Back when I first wrote about the tech, it seemed a really terrible idea. Some commenters (sorta) managed to convince me otherwise.

But here's the real question: Could it even work?

Not really, says John K. Roman of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute. At least not here in D.C. Because first you have to strike out the kinds of crime that don't affect the target audience: People on foot. That means theft, vehicular crime, and burglary are out. So then there's murder and sexual assault. But in D.C., the vast majority of occurrences of both crimes happen between people who know each other. So, Roman says, there simply isn't much data there that would be relevant for pedestrians who don't know anyone. He writes:

That leaves assault and robbery (taking something from a person by force or threat of force).  There are about 4,000 assaults and 3,000 robberies a year in DC, so these seem like good candidates for our app.

Checking out a map of 2009 data, the part of DC with the most assaults is in the 3rd police district, an area known as Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. (Maps of previous years’ data show the same hot spot.) These places are not the poorest in the city, nor are they the areas with the most minorities. What makes Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights so dangerous? That’s where the bars are heavily clustered.

Where are robberies most concentrated? Same place! And, within that place, the “hottest” hot spots are near Metro stations and along the busiest commercial corridors (where the most bars are).

In other words, walking through a poor or minority neighborhood doesn’t automatically make you more susceptible to serious personal crime. Walking late at night through a heavily populated commercial area, especially one with lots of impaired people, does.

If the app works the way he describes, then the nickname is definitely all wrong. And it's hard to believe that Microsoft will recommend that walkers avoid Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. For my initial grouchiness about the app, I'm chastened. But also vindicated! Since it probably won't work anyway.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • Keith B.

    Might be more relevant if the TIME crimes occur is taken into account

    If they go ahead with it maybe more tourists will patronize their hotel bars instead of risking AdMo, U St, etc.

  • Dizzy

    So, a couple of things:

    1. Generally speaking, higher density = higher absolute number of crimes. The Adams Morgan/Columbia Heights thing works both ways: more incidents take place there, but because there are more people there period, the chances of you being the victim in one of those incidents are also lower. Especially if you yourself are not sending out "I'm a great target of opportunity!" signals through inebriated stumbling alone, etc.

    "The Ghetto" in DC tends to be much lower density than the downtown and elite residential corridors. This has lots of effects for those that live there, such as the fact that crime is experienced as being far more pervasive because there is a greater likelihood of knowing those who are involved or affected and the increased likelihood of one's personally being involved/affected. This leads to an "atmosphere of crime," even if the likelihood of a random visitor becoming a victim is statistically not as high as elsewhere.

    2. I think a big part of this, both psychologically and to some extent in reality, is the notion of being exposed/being an easily identifiable, obvious target. This can be just as true for those who grew up in and/or are from "the ghetto" as for the Microsoft GPS-wielding upper-middle class set. Ta-Nehisi Coates has talked about this as part of his childhood, growing up knowing that there were large parts of the city that were off limits. You don't go to a neighborhood where a territorial and violent crew or gang holds sway unless you know someone in that hood who will vouch for you. You learn such things either the hard way or through word of mouth, e.g. where the boundaries are, whose turf it is, etc.

    It's not surprising that those not accustomed to an area will want to find a way of tapping into that sort of "street smarts." Crime rates aren't necessarily a great metric for gauging such things, but on some level, other alternatives are likely to be much less palatable. After all, the place where a newcomer or transient would stick out the most is not in a dense, diverse neighborhood, but a lower density, homogenous/segregated one. If there are any crews or individuals with malevolent intent around, they're much more likely to key in on someone whose "kind" isn't often seen around such parts. Measuring and utilizing such a metric, though, really would be creating a "avoid the ghetto" tool.

  • Amy

    Exactly! Muggings are what I worry about and what self-respecting mugger is going to mug someone in a low-income neighborhood where it's less likely people are carrying wads of cash and iPhones? The pickings are so much better in a place where drunk middle class people hang out.