My neighborhood is experiencing a crime wave. Just on my block in the last week, several packages were stolen from doorsteps and tires have been slashed on at least two cars. I found all of this out from an app that's quickly becoming our neighborhood's best security system. "I heard it from Fred two doors down" is being replaced by "I saw it on Nextdoor."

Nextdoor is a location-based social network meant to connect neighbors. By signing up and giving your address, you're placed in a "neighborhood" of users who live in your immediate vicinity. Its intended uses, according to a promotional video, are to borrow a ladder or find a babysitter. In my neighborhood, probably more than half of the Nextdoor posts are about crime.

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My Nextdoor neighborhood— one of about 53,000 in the US—is roughly four blocks square. Within those boundaries, 72 households use the app, about seven percent of the total households. The online communities are private; you can only see your neighbors, but users are also able to view updates from a dozen or so nearby communities. Once upon a time everything we knew about what was happening in our neighborhood was limited to conversations over fences and flyers at the local laundromat. Nextdoor is the superpowered next generation of the neighborhood watch for my block, and the good it has done for us and other communities around the country is tangible.

While that information has made me and many others into evangelical users of the app, unfortunately that's not the end of the story. As Fusion reported earlier this week, its growth is stirring up questions about how hyperlocal social networks unwittingly allow neighbors to engage in racial profiling:

A post on Nextdoor which was accused of racial profiling, and a response to it, via Fusion

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At Fusion, Pendarvis Harshaw writes that tensions on the app can be so high that some communities are taking steps to address it, complicating things even further. In one Oakland neighborhood, residents organized a "whites-only" meeting to address the issue of how to properly report and describe suspicious people on Nextdoor. This was after a neighbor posted in detail about the race and wardrobes of two "sketchy" men "lingering" outside her house. They turned out to be friends of another woman on Nextdoor who were invited to her home for a party. This highlights many of the complicated issues and dangerous consequences around being able to put out an emotionally charged yet misinformed warning—or even a photo—to everyone on your block, instantly.

Part of the problem is that safety, by its very nature, is subjective. A street that feels scary to you might be the street where I live and feel perfectly comfortable walking at night. We need to be able to share what makes us feel uneasy, which isn't even always the actions of people, it could be a broken streetlight or a tipped-over trash can. But it's difficult to actually quantify what makes a neighborhood safe.

The app SketchFactor, released last year, allows users to report "sketchy" people and situations they encounter

Nextdoor is not the only app precipitating these questions.

There's the poor precedent provided by the app SketchFactor, which claims that it "empowers you to explore & discover cities on foot," but is actually designed to tell people which neighborhoods and streets to avoid. Based on the stories of users, wide-eyed icons with gritted teeth in various levels of intensity are dropped along with ambiguous rankings like "weird" along city blocks. It's the ultimate app for fear-mongering because it contains very little actual data, only people's perceptions, which aggregate in a way that makes it feel like every potential route has something dangerous lurking in the shadows.

Crimespotting, developed by Stamen, color-codes and geotags local crimes and places them into a searchable database

The other alternative is a purely data-driven tool like Crimespotting, the data visualization project by Stamen, which plots crimes on city maps. Here you can easily see where crimes are happening, but there's no emotion, no nuance, just the hard data. Which leaves out a few things. The crime is almost always reported crime, and report rates vary depending on the neighborhood (if it's mostly businesses or residential, for example). And it also tells me very little about what life feels like day-to-day in these places.

Nextdoor fits somewhere between the two approaches and this is why it's entering unexplored social media territory. While I see the problems with a neighbor being able to expeditiously label a stranger as "sketchy," instantly skewing the perceptions of everyone else on the block, Nextdoor has redeeming features than make it more useful than a dataset plotting past crimes.

The local LAPD precinct is an active and engaged presence on my Nextdoor neighborhood page

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First, it's not just neighbors who are posting to Nextdoor with their potentially misinformed suspicions. Nextdoor allows local law enforcement to post alerts and updates about where exactly burglaries and muggings are occurring, along with actual photos and descriptions of suspects culled from security cameras and police reports, and can provide commentary about ongoing trends. So it's really not just a bunch of people ranting about shady characters on their sidewalks—it's a rather informed conversation between residents and local police.

Nextdoor also delivers content to my phone, immediately, which helps me to take specific and targeted action if needed. While I probably don't regularly reference the LA Times' crime map, which is updated daily with all the police activity in my neighborhood, or look at the LAPD's Twitter account, I will pay attention to a push notification warning of an uptick in car burglaries on my street. But this could also lead to rash decisions from people who are too quick to make judgements about the people outside their doors.

Updates from your neighborhood are conveniently delivered to your phone, which might make it too easy to disseminate snap judgements about crime

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Can we make Nextdoor a better crime-reporting tool? Racial bias has always been endemic to people reporting crimes, so it's not an issue that's exclusive to Nextdoor. But maybe there's a way for the app to take these existing problems and improve upon the process. Perhaps the partnership with local law enforcement could be more formalized, with a more specific online tool for reporting suspicious behavior where the content could be reviewed and edited by police into more neutral language before posting it publicly. Although this would hurt one of the app's best features: immediacy.

To its credit, Nextdoor makes an attempt to hold people accountable for what they post by asking users to submit real names and addresses with an additional level of identity validation (which many social networks don't have). I went through weeks' worth of posts in my neighborhood and couldn't find anything inflammatory. I think requiring the use of real names certainly helps neighbors to be more civil, especially because we're likely to bump into each other on the street.

None of this is good enough yet. But among all the options I have at my disposal for making my own block feel safer, I have to say that Nextdoor is probably one of the best tools around at the moment. The information I get from one app has helped me to become more vigilant in my day-to-day life. I am more observant about what's happening out my window. And my neighbors are as well.

Photo by Antti T. Nissinen