Thursday, January 19, 2012

Another Mini News Quiz

Microsoft is developing a new smartphone application that, although it has not been released yet, is already stirring up controversy. What will the app enable users to do?

1. Determine the nutritional content of restaurant meals
2. Avoid high-crime neighborhoods
3. Get better deals on health insurance
4. Boycott products made by companies affiliated with Apple


Dan Mont said...

Hmmm. The one that would seem to mark the most controversy would be the neighborhood one, so I'm going to guess that one

Alexander Mont said...

That is correct. Google "avoid ghetto app" for more information.

As for my take on all this - I don't understand any of the criticism about it being "racist". As far as I can tell, the planned app will not use racial data in any way - it will only use crime data. If the crime data is somehow biased to overestimate the crime rate in minority areas, that is a problem with the data source (which I assume is some standard government source) not a problem with Microsoft. If the critics are assuming that minority areas will have higher crime rates and show up in the app, that is an assumption the critics are making, not an assumption that Microsoft is making.

There is actually another argument which deserves more attaention, however - that it will hurt businesses in high-crime areas. The argument is that even if it is true that the "high-crime areas" really are more danegerous to go through, and thus app users really are benefiting, it still makes it harder for the high crime areas to improve themselves since nobody wants to go there. So there's a social negative that you have to balance out against the benefit of being safer. Of course, if you accept this logic, you would have to argue for not having crime statistics be publicly available at all (because people can still access them when deciding where to live/set up businesses/etc.) You would also have to accept that it's a net social bad if I tell my friend not to go to a certain place at night because it's dangerous, which seems an unlikely claim to have to make.

However, there are other contexts in which this line of argument would not seem so absurd. For instance, I was reading an article once about how it's becoming difficult for people with criminal records to get jobs, now that more and more jobs are requiring background checks since background checking is so much easier to do now that all the records are computerized. Again, from the emplyer's perspective doing a background check probably does decrease their risk, but thre's also a social negative in that if people have a harder time finding jobs, they might be more likely to turn back to crime. And we certainly do have lots of reasonable discussions about online privacy that boil down to this line of reasoning - even if the information is accurate, and even if the conclusions being drawn from that information are correct and of relevance to the person using the information, there still might be a social negative in using that information.

Dan Mont said...

I think that high minority areas are more likely to have crime, mostly because they are also more likely to be low income.

Of course, knowing raw crime statistics for an area does not tell you that much about your risk if you enter that area. What if most of the crimes are breaking and entry? If you don't live there then you are not at risk of that crime. Or what if it is drug use, and not violent crime. THen again, it won't affect you much,

I think these neighborhoods are fearful of being branded as bad places to go, which will only depress the further economically, which might lead to more crime.

More information is generally a good thing, but only if it is presented in a complete and transparent way that allows people to make good decisions