Will Microsoft's New App Help Women Avoid Rape?

Microsoft is drawing some criticism for what some people are calling the "avoid ghetto" feature, which would supposedly let Windows Phone users steer clear of bad neighborhoods. What would this product mean for women's safety?

CNET reports that the "avoid ghetto" function (that questionable term seems to have been invented by CBS Seattle) would combine crime statistics with GPS to suggest safe routes to smartphone users. Writes CNET's Chris Matyszczyk, "It's one thing to avoid areas where there might have occurred physical assaults and gunfire. It's another to avoid, say, places where burglaries are popular, as one suspects quite a few allegedly nice areas are subject to burglars' desires." But what about sexual assaults?

On one level, it makes intuitive sense to avoid neighborhoods with a high level of sex crimes — whenever there's a rash of assaults in a particular area, women are often told to do just that. And women might find sex crime information useful when planning routes. On the other hand, there are plenty of times when you don't have much choice in the matter (like, say, if you live in one of the areas deemed a "ghetto"). Also, since most rape victims already know their attackers, walking alone likely isn't when you're at the greatest risk. And telling ladies to avoid bad neighborhoods — like so much supposedly anti-rape advice — has the effect of limiting their movements while letting rapists roam free. I could even see an "avoid sex crimes" app used for victim-blaming — if she'd only been using her smartphone correctly, she wouldn't have been assaulted.

Microsoft's patent doesn't mention ladies or rape specifically. In fact, what it does say about combining crime stats with GPS is pretty dude-centric: "The generation component 104 can analyze the information and construct a direction set that allows the user to take paths that take him to his home in a quickest amount of time while keeping the user relatively safe (e.g., taking the user through neighborhoods with violent crime statistics below a certain threshold)." But violent crime stats generally do include rape, and odds are that if "avoid ghetto" does make it to market, Microsoft developers are going to have to deal with this issue. If they choose to include rape stats in their route recommendations, they may be arming ladies with some extra information. Whether such information can really help women, though, is much more uncertain.

The joy of Microsoft's 'avoid ghetto' GPS patent [CNET, via CBS]