• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


A Conversation About SketchFactor

The creators of a new app feel unjustly maligned.

August 10, 2014

Friday saw the launch of a new app called SketchFactor, which was born out of co-founder Allison McGuire’s desire to “crowdsource opinions about certain areas.” Using SketchFactor, people can report specific incidents and rate them on a “sketchiness” scale of 1 to 5.

Prior to the app’s launch McGuire told Crain’s New York Business that she and her co-founder Daniel Herrington were aware of possible criticisms that their app would allow for racial profiling of neighborhoods. She told Crain’s reporter Thornton McEnery:

We understand that people will see this issue. And even though Dan and I are admittedly both young, white people, the app is not built for us as young, white people. As far as we're concerned, racial profiling is 'sketchy' and we are trying to empower users to report incidents of racism against them and define their own experience of the streets.

Honestly, it was one of the better laughs I had all day.


Saturday afternoon, 18-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

Brown was unarmed. Witnesses reported that his hands were in the air.

Chief Jon Belmar of the St. Louis County Police Department says there was a struggle inside of the officer’s police car where one shot was fired. Michael Brown’s body ultimately fell 35 feet from the officer’s car. It is not clear how many times Michael Brown was shot, maybe eight, maybe ten.

I wondered if Allison McGuire would call the killing of Michael Brown “sketchy.”


The public scorn for SketchFactor poured forth immediately. Questlove and Bomani Jones and Jamelle Bouie all pointed out the racist implications of SketchFactor.

I had my own thoughts.



McGuire appeared stung. In a follow up article, she told Thornton McEnery:

I've worked in community organizing my whole career and I know the world of public service very well. It's unfortunate that people are going to run with this racism thing, but we've worked with community organizations and other groups to make this app the best it can be, and we think it is.

At the SketchFactor website, they posted a statement defending themselves, declaring that the app is “a tool for anyone, anywhere, at any time.”

They go on to say that SketchFactor is appropriate to report “racial profiling, harassment, low lighting, desolate areas, weird stuff, you name it.”

They declare that they’re being attacked because people “need clicks.”

They say, “slamming SketchFactor without having a conversation is unprofessional.”


This is my attempt at conversation.

I believe Allison McGuire when she says that she does not intend for the app to perpetuate a culture of racial profiling. Or, I at least believe she believes it.

I believe she believes that with SketchFactor she had the potential to do well while doing good, or at least not doing bad.

But I also believe she and her partners weren’t thinking very hard or well about the implications of their product. I think the use of the word “sketchy” to describe racial profiling or “police misconduct” is idiotic. To equate it to someone dancing shirtless in a bar is deeply trivializing.

There’s another word for police misconduct: criminal.

I think Allison McGuire has been marinating in a start-up culture that has apparently warped her mind if she thinks otherwise. The entire presentation of SketchFactor is “consumerism cutesy” right down to the googly-eyed icon meant to denote a “sketchy” area. It’s now been taken down, but prior to the criticism there was even a page where you could receive SketchFactor “swag.[1]

The “trailer” for the app is both amateurish and devoid of any of the high minded public service McGuire claims for herself and her company. If she's been misunderstood, I submit it's her own fault. For myself, I wish I had responded in this way, rather than with rapid-fire Twitter snark. Mea culpa.

Maybe Allison McGuire is just naïve, which would be okay. We all are about some things.

I’d feel more inclined to believe it if SketchFactor’s response to the criticism hadn’t focused on their hurt fee-fees for being so misunderstood.

According to McEnery, “Ms. McGuire says the open platform of SketchForce will prove itself to be racially inclusive and socially positive.”

I’d like to laugh again, but I feel more like crying.


Twitter is where most of the mean stuff was being said about SketchFactor.



[1] http://www.sketchfactor.com/snail-mail-swag/

Imagine that, swag for social justice.



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