Apps That Blast Out Crime Alerts Don’t Have to Rattle You

My phone recently buzzed with an alarming notification: Police officers were responding to a shooting about a mile away.

A few hours later, another alert popped up, letting me know that two men were fighting in an alleyway nearby. Then my inbox loaded an email with a message that a neighbor had found a man trying to break into his house.

The notifications arrived because of two apps I was using: Nextdoor, a social network for neighbors, and Citizen, which delivers alerts on local crimes in progress. Both are among the most downloaded news apps today, according to App Annie, the research firm.

They are also part of a crop of apps that focus on keeping people informed about their neighborhoods, a category that is likely to grow. Last year, for instance, Amazon acquired Ring, which makes a doorbell that doubles as a security camera. The retail giant recently posted a job listing for someone to manage a team of news journalists who would write crime alerts for an app.

The seemingly constant barrage of news about criminal activity could lead people to conclude that the world is far more dangerous than it ever was. The reality is that the violent-crime rate in the United States has fallen sharply — by about 49 percent from 1993 to 2017, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Property crime has also declined significantly.

“Seeing a lot of crime reports isn’t something that gives you any context,” said Rachel Thomas, a professor for the University of San Francisco’s Data Institute and a co-founder of, an independent lab that focuses on artificial intelligence.

So how do we best use these neighborhood networking apps without succumbing to anxiety and paranoia? After all, the apps can be useful for learning about community events or getting recommendations for local businesses, like plumbers and electricians.

In recent weeks, I tested several of the apps and spoke to data experts to gain a perspective on how to use community data in a productive and healthy way. Here’s what I learned.

Scanning dozens of crime-related alerts won’t tell you much about the state of crime in your neighborhood. So look elsewhere for additional context, like a company’s business model, Dr. Thomas said.

For example: Amazon’s Ring offers Neighbors, a free app for getting a comprehensive look at potential criminal activity nearby. When you set it up, you see a map of your neighborhood, with color-coded icons labeled crime, safety or suspicious. Residents in the area can contribute to the map by posting videos recorded with their Ring doorbells to document break-in attempts, for example, or by writing posts about police activity.

By default, Neighbors displays crimes posted over the last 30 days. That shows an accumulation of incidents, which can unnecessarily give people the impression that their area was being swarmed by criminals.

For Amazon, this may not be a bad thing, as it may help sell more Ring doorbells. But for the rest of us, a 30-day view may overstate what a neighborhood’s crime level looks like day to day.

So I recommend setting the filter on such apps to look at content posted over the last day only. When I changed that setting, the number of crime postings in my neighborhood dropped to zero. It was a useful reminder that the number of daily incidents is low.

A representative for Amazon’s Ring did not comment on the suggestion that the Neighbors app created the impression that a neighborhood was more dangerous in order to sell doorbells. However, the company noted that not everything posted to Neighbors was dangerous — people could also find information about lost pets and updates about street closings, for example.

Do you really need a constant update on crime news? Unless you work in law enforcement, the answer is probably not.

So treat crime news as you would any type of media: Check the apps when doing so may actually be productive and healthy. If crime news makes you stressful, don’t look at the apps late at night before bed. And disable the constant notifications and emails.

That’s what I did with the Citizen app. After using it for a day, I disabled notifications so that I couldn’t be alerted about every nearby crime in progress.

Instead, I checked the app only when it made the most sense. This week, when stopped at a red light, I saw two men fighting at a gas station. I clicked on the Citizen app, which showed that the altercation had already been reported to the police. So instead of pulling over and calling 911, I moved on.

Many people have a negative bias. We gravitate toward reading negative news stories, and when something bad happens, we are more likely to talk about it than when something good happens.

Keep that in mind when perusing neighborhood networking apps. The general news feed on Nextdoor shows an array of posts on topics like lost pets, used furniture for sale, a handyman’s offer of services and, occasionally, a crime.

The crime-related posts may be all you remember, but they are rare. Only 4 percent of posts on Nextdoor are related to crime and safety, said Sarah Friar, the company’s chief executive.

“If you spend more time in the overall feed and ask yourself, ‘What do I hear in here?’ — 96 percent of all the posts are about other things,” she said.

Because many of these neighborhood-watch apps are free, you have to wonder what they are doing with your data. When tech products cost you nothing, companies often make money in other ways, like sharing data about you with advertisers.

Nextdoor, for example, makes money from advertising. But the company builds in several privacy layers. Its privacy policy says it does not share personal data with advertisers. It also requires people to share their real names when using the app to help ensure that neighbors are who they say they are. And the app gives some control over the data you share, including the option to hide your address from neighbors.

Citizen was a different matter. I realized that when users sign up for the app, it required them to constantly share their location data. The company said sharing this data lets you receive real-time notifications for nearby crimes in progress. In a future software update, it said, the use of location data would allow it to send fewer and more relevant notifications to keep people safe and informed.

Users can later opt out of sharing their location if they decide to turn off notifications. But the company did not comment when I asked about why its opt-in approach to location sharing was so aggressive. So until Citizen changes its data collection practices, I plan to delete it.

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