We know that “avoid the ghetto” isn’t really the name of the new Microsoft patented GPS technology—but it’s a moniker that’s stuck thanks to the app’s job: Keep pedestrians from walking into crime-ridden areas. Back when I first wrote about the tech, it seemed a really terrible idea. Some commenters (sorta) managed to convince me otherwise.

But here’s the real question: Could it even work?

Not really, says John K. Roman of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute. At least not here in D.C. Because first you have to strike out the kinds of crime that don’t affect the target audience: People on foot. That means theft, vehicular crime, and burglary are out. So then there’s murder and sexual assault. But in D.C., the vast majority of occurrences of both crimes happen between people who know each other. So, Roman says, there simply isn’t much data there that would be relevant for pedestrians who don’t know anyone. He writes:

That leaves assault and robbery (taking something from a person by force or threat of force).  There are about 4,000 assaults and 3,000 robberies a year in DC, so these seem like good candidates for our app.

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).

In other words, walking through a poor or minority neighborhood doesn’t automatically make you more susceptible to serious personal crime. Walking late at night through a heavily populated commercial area, especially one with lots of impaired people, does.

If the app works the way he describes, then the nickname is definitely all wrong. And it’s hard to believe that Microsoft will recommend that walkers avoid Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. For my initial grouchiness about the app, I’m chastened. But also vindicated! Since it probably won’t work anyway.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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