Why SketchFactor And Similar Apps Are Pointless

Senior Contributor
08.08.14 5 Comments


Lately, a new app has been making the rounds. Called SketchFactor, the idea is that by collecting crowdsourced reports of harassment, you can avoid dangerous neighborhoods. Needless to say, the idea has a few rather glaring flaws that were gleefully pointed out, including the potential for racism. But the bigger flaw in this app is that it’s largely pointless.

How “Sketchy” Is “Sketchy?”

Let’s start with the most basic problem: This relies on anonymous reports, which, even if the user is being honest, relies on user perception, and that’s problematic to say the least. It’s pretty simple; no matter who a person is, no matter where you are, the odds are overwhelming that they are not a criminal.

And yes, we can back that up with numbers. You may have heard the US has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, and that’s completely true. Well, maybe; #2 and #3 are China and Russia, not exactly noted for accurate statistics, but the point is, we lock up a hell of a lot of people compared to the rest of the world.

And at any given time, that totals less than one percent of the population. Throw in everybody who’s on parole and you’ve got less than 3% of the population that’s been convicted of some sort of crime. And what are they in jail for? Well, roughly 40% of them are in there for drug offenses, public order crimes (i.e. peeing in the street), and property crimes, mostly burglary, better known as “stealing your stuff when you’re not there.”

So, the crime SketchFactor is supposed to help prevent, where somebody takes your wallet at gunpoint or waggles their junk at you? That’s maybe 1.5% of the overall population, throwing in the people who get away with it. Part of that is because law enforcement is pretty good at clearing violent crimes as compared to property crimes, so if a guy goes out and murders somebody, he’s a lot more likely to go to jail than if, say, he throws a rock through your window and takes your TV.

Not that it matters, as the overall violent crime rate has been on a steady downward trend, partially because now we can call 911 from a computer we keep in our pants. Turns out, being able to call the police at a moment’s notice has done wonders for reducing crime!

Motive, Motive, Motive

More to the point, though, violent crime is more likely to happen to you courtesy of somebody you already know. For example, it was found in 1993 that 80% of murder victims knew their killer before, well, they became murder victims, and that’s held up over the years. If you’re worried that some drug addict or crazy person might stab you, it’s the other way around: The mentally ill are twice as likely to be the victims, because really, criminals are crappy people.

In short, the sketchiest place you can possibly be, by the numbers, is among your group of dear friends and close acquaintances, not some crappy neighborhood.

Common Sense Is The Best App

We’re not saying there aren’t bad parts of town; of course there are. It’s just that our perception of crime, as a society, tends to be that it’s a random act of violence committed by somebody we don’t know against a person who wandered into a bad situation without realizing it, and that’s not the reality. SketchFactor is based on that perception, and the reports gathered will be built on that perception, so even if it somehow isn’t racist thanks to user stupidity, it’ll be worthless.

So really, you’re better off putting your phone away and using your eyes. Especially considering the most important statistic: In places like New York City, 14% of all crime is people stealing iPhones.

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