Tech by VICE

Has Technology Severed Our Links to Our Local Communities?

And could it also be the thing that reconnects us?

by Harry Harris
04 May 2016, 4:00pm

From the Sidekix website

In our pockets, we have an arsenal of tools that aim to help us feel more connected. We Uber from place-to-place so we can get more done in one night, we get constant updates from people we know and strangers we'd like to on social media, we check Yelp for bar and restaurant recommendations so we know what others think before we go anywhere. Any decision we want to make can be peer-reviewed and fact-checked within a matter of minutes. In lieu of real-life communities, which are difficult to cultivate in a rapidly changing city like London where rent-hikes and gentrification make putting down roots increasingly difficult, we favour imagined ones. But are they really bringing us closer together, or just detaching us from our surroundings?

City discovery apps are trying to bridge that gap between our real and online surroundings, harnessing technology to make us more, not less, engaged with the local. Sidekix is an app that combines Citymapper with Yelp. If you give it your start and your end destination, it'll give you a route that takes you past nice cafes and galleries and whatnot, rather than the quickest route. Third Tinder-date territory, basically.

"Lifestyle navigation" is the term Sidekix founder Jenny Drezin used to describe the concept. "The idea is that your average mapping tool is pretty utilitarian, but when you're walking in a big city like London, there's lots more things that matter to you other than the shortest or fastest route."

It makes sense why London was chosen as the pilot city. London is sold to you as a kind of nirvana, a place where there are things to do and places to go and bars that open all hours and hey, if you want a cake at 4am, there'll be somewhere that sells you a cake at 4am and you'll have a great story to tell at the end of it. This patently isn't true. Nobody will sell you a cake at 4am. But you can see how something like this would help you live a London experience that's a bit closer to the hype, while still allowing you to stroll along in discovery.

On the flipside to Sidekix is something like RedZone, a similar navigation app that claims to use up-to-date, location-based crime data to, they say, give you the safest route home. As already pointed out by Thornton McEnery of Dealbreaker, the app is very similar to one called SketchFactor, which promised users a way to navigate their city avoiding "sketchy parts of town". It's not difficult to see how something like this can often amount to racial or socio-economic profiling. SketchFactor was publicly vilified and quietly swept under the rug not long after its launch.

RedZone screengrabs via Apple App Store

RedZone, who have been talking up their London launch, seem to get around these PR problems by using evasive, twee marketing language. Their iTunes description talks about "Zoners", people basically reporting suspicious behaviour in their area.

Our goal is to reduce a traveller's risk of being affected by crime. Whether it's at the gas station, on the road, staying at an AirBnB, or even touring a city. As an active Zoner, you can gain points, receive awards, and unlock features with perks to dominate your peers.

One blog, Tech Crunch, described the app like this:

When you've lived in a place for a while, you know that sometimes it's easier to go a couple of blocks out of your way to avoid that smelly street, those pesky teenagers or that place that seems to have a lot of shootings. If you're new in town, however, you don't have that luxury.

There's a fairly big leap there, from a "smelly street" to a "place that seems to have a lot of shootings" (and what possibly could an app that monitors crime data tell you about any area's olfactory qualities, smelly or otherwise). Also this "out-of-sight out-of-mind" approach to crime does nothing to interrogate why certain areas might be dangerous. It's all just very othering, and not particularly helpful.

Even if you were a petrified reactionary who didn't want to go to any areas where users had uploaded photos of youths gathering on the street, this app doesn't even do its job properly. I opened it up at work in east London and told it to give me a safe route to Shoreditch and it just panicked and closed down. I opened it again at home and clearly nobody's using it, because there was just no data. This may be because the full London launch hasn't happened yet, but the app won't say whether that was or wasn't the case.

But even if there was, even if it could tell me that a street had seen a shooting that week, or a theft, would that be relevant? Police estimate that 40% of crime data goes unreported anyway, and crime data without a deeper investigation into a particular area's sociological make-up doesn't mean a great deal. It just inspires fear.

Interestingly enough, the Sidekix creator initially began working on a safety app, where users could see reports by other users about why a certain area made them feel safe or not, but she changed tack after discovering the problems with this data. Instead, Sidekix offers options of routes that are the best lit, and gives you the option to have a friend "walk with you" by allowing your contacts to monitor your journey. Safety addressed, but in a less insidious way.

I've been out about using Sidekix this week and enjoying it. It's good for rambling. In London, where tiny streets snake off from main roads at will, it's a good way to find places that aren't on the main drag. I imagine for businesses who aren't near a train station or a high street, and so are reliant on people going out of their way to find them, you can see it becoming invaluable.

The challenge in attempting to bring these online communities into the real world is how to keep them there. If someone finds out about something through Sidekix, or Yelp, are they more likely to visit that area again, or just keep using that app? How do we make sure that it's communities that benefit from tools of discovery, rather than us cherry-picking the best bits of a city, and then Ubering between them so we never have to look away from our phones or go somewhere that doesn't have a five-star review? Sidekix has got the right idea by making us walk between recommendations, but it's up to us to make that last leap from our online communities to real ones.

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