Last week Allison McGuire and Daniel Herrington, two white millennials, unveiled SketchFactor, a crowdsourced app that lets people identify (and avoid) places where "sketchy" events have occurred, depending on one's potentially racist idea of what is or isn't sketchy. But when the controversial app was first announced, there was one promising detail that made it seem like this app might not fall into the same trap as its predecessors: its "partnership" with Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, an anti-racial profiling group formed in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. The partnership was promoted on the front page of the SketchFactor website. 

But according to Million Hoodies' Deputy Director Dante Berry, that partnership never existed. "We never supported the app," Berry told The Wire this week. Million Hoodies supported the idea of a technology that could be used to document incidences of racial profiling, but he said "we were never partners, and we're not partners." 

In fact, Berry said he first realized SketchFactor was claiming the partnership last Thursday, a day before the app launched, while he was on a conference call with SketchFactor co-founder Allison McGuire and The Wire. When The Wire asked Berry this week when he'd learned that SketchFactor has listed Million Hoodies as a partner on its website, he said "right after that call."  

During the call, the partnership was mentioned several times and uncontested by Berry, but now all references to Million Hoodies have been removed from the site at the organization's request. SketchFactor also declined to confirm or deny Berry's statements. McGuire said she had no comment when asked about Million Hoodies distancing itself from SketchFactor over the phone.

SkecthFactor was created with good intentions

SketchFactor gained immediate infamy last week after a Crain's New York Business profile depicted McGuire and her co-founder, Daniel Herrington, as smiling, if not oblivious and tone deaf, white millennials. It was panned by several media outlets, though McGuire noted that the press from outlets that interviewed her had been good.

"This is not an app that's created for one type of person to report one type of thing," she said during the conference call. "There's a reason we're called SketchFactor. Everyone experiences sketchiness. We're not SafetyFactor. We're not AvoidBlackPeopleFactor." 

SketchFactor near a Manhattan Shake Shack: 4.

Here's how the app works — users document an incident and describe various aspects of sketchiness including:

  • Its SketchFactor, ranked 1-5
  • Whether you're submitting a "pro-tip," "weird" incident, "dangerous" incident, or "something else"
  • How well lit the area was
  • What time of day the incident occurred
  • Whether it happened "just now" (within the last hour), "recently" (within the last two weeks), or "a long time ago" (within the last year)
  • A description of the sketchy incident

You can down vote incidents you don't like and mark them as spam, offensive or not sketchy, and ideally the app's algorithm will keep those kinds of posts out of your feed. Spam and offensive incidents get flagged for review, but the goal is to let people filter through votes. "It doesn't really matter what we individually think is sketchy," McGuire said. "It's not really about us individually, it's about the collective crowd."

During the call, at least, Berry seemed to be on the same page. "It's a way for marginalized communities, and also everyone else, to really talk about the experiences that people go through every day and providing the context," he said. "On our end we're really framing it in a way of how can we create a more safe community for all of us, not just a select few."

But after the conference call, Berry sent a press release to The Wire from Million Hoodies distancing the organization from SketchFactor. According to the release, while Million Hoodies doesn't "object to trying and testing any potential technology that can help empower communities" (emphasis added)

We do not support nor have we ever supported the language or description of "sketchy" or "sketchfactor" but continued to explore working with the team to possibly license the technology that powered a tool we thought could be useful. As we worked to explore this possibility through a partnership, SketchFactor launched suddenly to the public without any further lead time

Million Hoodies now says it was solely a beta tester, though Berry said that he hasn't used the app since it was released and didn't want to comment on the quality of the app now.

The real problem with the app

Berry hasn't used the app since it launched, but we have. And while most the of the backlash against the app has been that it's racist, the truth is it's just spammy. For example:

Exhibit B:

McGuire said that while she fully expected people to abuse the app and possibly post "racist bile," she also expected people to post great tips. "The internet is terrible, but it's also amazing," she said. And based on a day of using the app, there has been some possibly valuable, though unverified, information amid the spam and poop sightings. Example:

And maybe the app will get better. McGuire said that an upcoming version of the app will link people to resources when they report a situation. For example, SketchFactor has been working with the D.C. Forensic Nurse Examiners, a group that helps sexual assault victims. Ideally, when a user reports being sexually assaulted, the app would direct her to information on what to do after an assault. 

"So for example, I didn't know this, and I have been sexually assaulted, I didn't know that after one of those incidences occurs, you should not smoke a cigarette, chew gum, change, shower, etc," McGuire said. 

The problem is that despite good intentions, one app can't be all things to all people. As McGuire put it, "there's a reason that I find something sketchy and and reason Dante (Berry) finds something sketchy. And everyone cares about sketchiness, it's not a white people problem."

Yes, everyone cares about "sketchiness," even if, like Million Hoodies, that's not the word you'd use. That's why Million Hoodies has looked for apps that allow marginalized communities to document incidences of police misconduct and racial profiling, and why some white people think sites like Ghetto Tracker aka Nice Part of Town are a good idea. But when you try to combine those concerns under the umbrella of a charged word like "sketchy" it doesn't work.