Microsoft Patents ‘Unsafe Neighborhood’ GPS Feature, Gets Tons of Flak From Interwebs

January 12, 2012

The interwebs are up in arms about what many bloggers are calling the “avoid the ghetto” feature described in a recent Microsoft GPS patent.

Reaction has almost universally been negative, but does seem to vary in degrees based upon how much of the actual patent writers and commentators have actually read.

For example, Ross Kenneth Urken of Aol Autos thinks the patent is about helping motorists stay out of the ghetto while driving. He writes,

Microsoft’s newly-patented “avoid ghetto” app for GPS devices aims to help motorists steer clear of unsafe neighborhoods, but the concept’s controversial nature has garnered ire from critics.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Microsoft patent which deals with pedestrian travel – not car traffic.

Just read the patent summary for yourself (I’ve highlighted key sentences for easy skimming)

The following discloses a simplified summary of the specification in order to provide a basic understanding of some aspects of the specification. This summary is not an extensive overview of the specification … Its sole purpose is to disclose some concepts of the specification in a simplified form as a prelude to the more detailed description that is disclosed later.

Conventional route generation systems obtain data from various sources and generate a direction set to be used by a person operating an automobile. A user commonly inputs a starting location and an intended destination in addition to travel constraints (e.g., to avoid highways, minimum travel time, minimal travel distance, or minimal gas consumption); based upon inputted information, a travel route is generated. However, there are numerous difficulties in translating vehicle (e.g., automotive) route generation to pedestrian travel. For instance, a pedestrian can commonly traverse terrain that is more rugged then many vehicles (e.g., climbing steep and rocky hills); conversely, a pedestrian can become more susceptible to environmental influence, such as from cold temperatures.

The disclosed innovation produces routes that are intended to be taken by a pedestrian. A gather component obtains information related to intended pedestrian travel and a generation component produces a route based upon at least part of the obtained information. Commonly, the pedestrian route is produced based off security information, weather information, terrain information, or a combination thereof. Various features can integrate with route presentment, such as integrating an advertisement targeted to a pedestrian with a direction set.

A large amount of focus in route generation has focused upon vehicle route generation and little attention has been paid to pedestrian route production. Since a large number of individuals travel by vehicle, application to pedestrian travel has been ignored. However, there has been a long felt need for route generation towards individuals that do not commonly travel by vehicle–for instance, many economically challenged areas are populated with individuals that do not own motorized vehicles and generally travel by walking. In addition, unexpected results can take place through practice of the disclosed innovation. As an illustration, a pedestrian could arrive at a location faster than if she traveled in a vehicle by taking more direct paths, yet a vehicle commonly travels much faster. Due to detailed route planning, a direction set can be created that allows a user to take more diverse paths that can compensate for a general lack of speed.

In case you just skipped the quote, the patent is essentially about how to navigate on foot while taking into account factors that might be particularly important to pedestrians, like weather or mugging statistics or changes in elevation. This is not a patent about driving a car.

Most people are fine with the idea of using weather and topographical data to help make their walking experiences better. What most people object to is the use of “security information” to determine the flow of pedestrian traffic.

Katie Rogers, reporting at the Washington Post, isn’t convinced that a GPS feature that might use crime statistics to determine routing is helpful, especially to the communities that it steers foot traffic away from. She writes, “A phone feature that encourages users to avoid problem areas of a city — potentially hurting those areas’ reputations and economies in the process — may soon draw more controversy than it does accolades.”

Chris Matyszczyk of CNET is concerned about what type of crime stats Microsoft plans on using to determine secure and unsecure areas. While he concedes that data concerning muggings, assaults, and gunfire would be helpful he is concerned that the people at Microsoft will lump all crime data together – placing burglary right alongside more personal, violent crimes.

Similarly, Sarah E. Chinn, author of Technology and the Logic of American Racism and Associate Professor in the Department of English at Hunter College is reported by AOL Autos as hating the idea of this app, which she described as a “appalling.”  Again, the issue is what Microsoft is going to do with the “security information.”  Chinn is quoted as saying, “Of course, an application like this defines crime pretty narrowly, since all crimes happen in all kinds of neighborhoods. I can’t imagine that there aren’t perpetrators of domestic violence, petty and insignificant drug possession, fraud, theft, and rape in every area.”

What seems so interesting about these comments is that they don’t seem to take into account Microsoft having employees who employ common sense. Why would anyone with even a small amount of sense think that incidents of insider trading ought to be included right along with rapes and muggings when determining a safe or unsafe walking route?

They also appear to not now about or reject crime mapping, a disciple that seeks to understand crime by mapping and analyzing crime incident reports.  A street that has a long history of muggings at certain times during the day should probably not be on your route during that time of day.  That just makes common sense.

In the end, the uproar about the patent is overblown and probably a stunt to get an audience but has little basis in what probably is going to happen.  I just hope Microsoft doesn’t get scared by the brouhaha and actually develops the patent into a really good working product.

Sources: Technolog, US Patent, Aol Autos, Washington Post, CNET

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