Moovit transit app blasted after racist slur used to identify historic N.S. Black community
'It's bordering on a hate crime and we should treat it as such,' says Archy Beals
An app that helps people find bus and train schedules around the world is being publicly condemned after it allowed a historic Nova Scotia Black community to be labelled using a racist slur.
Moovit is a public transit app, and the area it referred to as "Dartmouth-Preston" appeared as the N-word followed by "ville" in its listings. The area indicated on the app's map was in the general area of the Prestons.
The Preston area is a historic Black community on the outskirts of Dartmouth, N.S., made up of neighbouring North Preston, East Preston and Cherry Brook.
"It's totally disgusting and whoever did it should be investigated," Archy Beals, who grew up in North Preston, said Wednesday. "It's bordering on a hate crime and we should treat it as such."
Moovit has been around since 2012. It serves 950 million riders in 3,400 cities and is used in 112 countries, according to the company's website.
In an email, Moovit said it took immediate action to remove the racist language from its program.
"This is highly inappropriate and racist content, and should not have happened. We deeply apologize," said spokesperson Sharon Kaslassi.
Kaslassi said Moovit gathers its information by using external databases of addresses and points of interest — including ones that are crowdsourced and user generated. In this case, Kaslassi said, the racist address was put into the app by a user.
But Philip Mai, the co-director of Ryerson University's Social Media Lab, said Moovit has a responsibility to moderate content solicited from users. The platform should have caught the slur with even the most basic scanning filter, he said, and noted the N-word is usually at the top of banned word lists.
"The fact that they didn't catch this particular version of the N-word makes it very troubling simply because even if they don't know this version of it with the ville at the end, they should have caught the first part of it," he said.
Mai is calling on the app to adopt more advanced content moderation by hiring more people and improving its artificial intelligence technology.
Beals said the company's response doesn't add up.
"That's a bunch of crap. You know, if you have a site and people are putting stuff on your site, you monitor that so that there's no harm done to your own business or any one individual, any one community or one group of people," he said. "There's no excuse for ignorance."
Moovit maintains that its team works hard to filter out and remove inaccurate information "as soon as we become aware of them," Kaslassi said in an email. The specific term used to describe the Preston area was not spotted by Moovit's language filters, she said, "but we have made sure to include it to block out content such as this."
Cornelia Schneider, a friend of Beals's, also saw the listing on Moovit. She said the information in the app indicated it was last edited on Jan. 19. That means the offensive term could have been showing up for two weeks.
Schneider said some friends of hers tried to edit the app to remove the slur but weren't able to do it. The whole situation nauseates her.
"It made me sick to my stomach," she said. "I've seen a lot of offensive content in my lifetime, but this one is really hitting it out of the park. For a long time I haven't seen anything that blatantly offensive and insulting and outright racist."
Schneider and Beals both lodged complaints with Moovit on Tuesday night. Schneider received a reply back from the company saying it took immediate action to remove the offensive content. But Schneider said the message she received seemed like it was automatically generated by a computer.
Beals went a step further, reporting the listing to Halifax Regional Police. He said the officer he spoke with told him he'd already received a couple of calls complaining about the app's language.
On Wednesday afternoon, police tweeted, "A number of people have had questions about recent racist slurs that have appeared on an app. We would like the community to know that we're aware of this and are investigating."
Kaslassi said the company is trying to do better.
"We want to make it clear that Moovit does not tolerate racism in any form, and we are taking efforts to ensure that we will do better to filter and remove unacceptable content we may receive externally to our databases, she said.
Despite his disgust with the situation, Beals said he was impressed by the amount of social media support he and others have received calling for the slur's removal and an investigation into how it appeared on the app.
"The support was tremendous amidst all the negativity. I hope and pray that one day we'll get to a point where we won't see this," said Beals.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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With files from Elizabeth Chiu