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Artist, programmer and UC San Diego lecturer Brett Stalbaum is no stranger to developing computer projects that make a political statement. An electronic civil disobedience tool he made in 1998 called FloodNet was used by Mexican Zapatistas against the presidents of the United States and Mexico as well as the Pentagon.
His latest project has drawn the ire of gun owners and internet trolls alike: a crowdsourcing app that allow people to map the locations of “unsafe” gun ownership.
The Android-only app, called Gun Geo Marker, which was released this week, enables users to target locations where they believe guns are being handled recklessly. Some of the tags users can mark are:
- “Possible unlocked/loaded/unsafe storage”
- “Guns and unsupervised children”
- “Documented/frequent unlawful discharge”
- “Possible anti-government/terror threat”
The purpose of the crowdsourcing app, according to Stalbaum, is to further define the “geography of risk” for parents — and to give the wider community a better sense of who uses guns irresponsibly and where. But gun rights avocates and trolls and have admitted to opening the app and tagging random areas as unsafe. The app has more more than 200 1-star reviews.
It’s not an altogether surprising reaction. The app combines two highly combustible things: the debate over gun ownership, and questions about the proper use cases for crowdsourcing. Angry commenters have already taken advantage of the main pitfall with the method that Gun Geo Marker uses to tag unsafe places: It can be done without vetting, without consent, and with malicious intent. A crowdsourcing app is only as good as the skills and ethics of its crowd.
The user interface of the app itself is very bare-bones: a colleague of mine who tested it out on her Android phone said that the app artificially restricts the geography that the user can see, and both the scrolling and zooming out functions are very limited. It also wasn’t clear to her whether you can delete a marker — if you enter it incorrectly — or just add them.
While Stalbaum takes great pains to explain on his website that the app isn’t meant to punish gun owners or people belong to the NRA, the app ultimately relies on the judgment and knowledge of the users who input the map markers. And it’s not hard to see how that could be a slippery slope.