Sep 26, 2009

Another Offspring of the Marriage Between Crime Data and the iPhone

"Warning: Stay alert. Do not get hurt."

That's what the iPhone said to me, in a very masculine voice, when I tried out the new application "Are You Safe? Sacramento." I had typed in an address recommended to me -- I don't live in Sacramento, otherwise the phone would have used GPS to identify my current location -- and discovered that, in that immediate vicinity, my "personal defcon" threat level was 2 (or orange, which is high), and that there had been 4 homicides, 27 assaults, 4 robberies, and 19 car thefts in this immediate vicinity in 2008. Additionally, I learned that a car had been stolen "about 0 ft. from here, on 05-22-2008. It occurred at 17:15, according to the record. If you are parking your vehicle you might want to think about finding a garage. You might be able to glean more context by examining the offense description: 10851(A)VC TAKE VEH W/O OWNER."

This, fine readers, is what is available to you if you live in Sacramento, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Milwaukee, or Indianapolis; you own an iPhone; and you are willing to pay $0.99. It is the union of publicly available crime data, GPS mapping, fancy application graphics (behold, the "threat meter"), and the long-standing human obsession with personal safety.

Its uses, according to the application makers, include:

  • "Visiting and unfamiliar with the city?"
  • "Debating whether to walk or take a cab?"
  • "Headed to an area you haven't been to before?"
  • "Not sure if you should park your car on the street?"
For outsiders to a neighborhood, it might be a helpful tool (likely, the people who have lived in the neighborhood for a while don't need a "threat meter" to tell them what crimes have been happening in the area recently). And to be fair, there's good reason to have as much data about any place as you can -- I wonder, however, whether there is an element of hysteria in this kind of thing. If this kind of technology takes root broadly, is it yet another way of stigmatizing neighborhoods that indeed have serious public safety concerns? Perhaps this application could be balanced with information about local block associations or dates for the next precinct community council meeting.

What are your thoughts about this kind of technology? Please comment!