Robert Moses 2.0, or the Unintended Inferences of Microsoft’s Walking App

Microsoft is getting criticized for its recently patented app, titled Pedestrian Route Production. The idea is to produce walking routes that steer pedestrians away from inclement weather (apparently conditions swing wildly from block-to-block in some cities?), roadblocks, and high-crime areas. Much of the criticsm is well-founded and deserved, as many have argued that it will steer pedestrians away from areas with higher concentrations of poverty, and/or minority populations.

A public housing project on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, often called Murder Avenue, exactly the kind of area Microsoft’s walking app is designed to avoid. I took this photo after I wandered off the beaten path after walking across the Brooklyn Bridge one morning. I should note that I never really felt unsafe, despite being an obvious target as a tourist carrying a backpack and fancy camera.

Of course, this also points to the misconceptions of why, when, and between whom incidences of (violent) crime happen. John Roman on the Microtrends blog deconstructs the perceptions of this in Washington, DC:

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).

The same thing would likely occur in my home town of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Edmonton Police Services provides a crimemapping tool on the web, where you can search for crimes that have been committed in each neighborhood. Similar to DC, you see a high number of violent crimes downtown and in Strathcona, both popular nightlife areas with a high concentration of restaurants and bars.

It’s hard to have an objective dialogue around crime, in particular violent crimes. We can talk about statistics and probabilities and random chance all we want, but the moment something happens to you or someone close to you, those cease to matter. Yet, regardless of its intentions, things like the Microsoft app perpetuate false stereotypes, and make matters worse for everyone trying to change the condition and the impression of certain neighborhoods.

In a sense, it serves to have the same effect as the practice of redlining. I’m also reminded of Anthony Flint’s excellent book Wrestling with Moses. In it, he covers how Moses would declare a New York neighborhood as blighted, preventing further investment or redevelopment. This ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy for a given area, regardless of its actual condition upon Moses’ designation.

At the New Partners for Smart Growth conference last week, one of the themes I focused on the most is the need to be inclusive in revitalization, and ensure that all residents – particularly disadvantaged communities – participate in, and benefit from, revitalization. The idea behind the Microsoft app, and other initiatives that discourage interaction with certain neighborhoods, perpetuates stereotypes and myths, ultimately making it less likely the condition of these neighborhoods and their residents will ever change. Our cities, and their residents, will be better off if we get over these stereotypes, and instead of avoiding problems (and perceived problem areas), figure out how we can use investment, data, and technology to further equity and prosperity, in particular for the most disdvantaged.


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