Riots and randomness: the search for an explanation

There is no consensus about how to classify what went on, but "randomness" is unlikely to be the ans

Although Tower Hamlets got off relatively lightly compared to other parts of the capital like Croydon, Hackney and Haringey, it was not spared from last week's disorders. A few days ago, I paid a visit to Roman Road in Tower Hamlets to see for myself where looting had taken place. One shop, Zee & Co, part of a small South Asian-owned retail chain which stocks designer clothing, had around £600,000 worth of stock removed by around 100 young people, mainly male but some female. So far, one 15-year-old caught on CCTV has been arrested and can expect a custodial sentence when he attends the youth court next month.

Why did this event and others like it happen elsewhere in London and other towns and cities in England? This is the $64,000 question that everyone from politicians and social commentators want the answer to. I think part of the puzzlement is that so far there has been no consensus about how to classify what went on. For example, it obviously wasn't a race riot in the conventional sense of either people from different ethnic groups battling it out on the streets, or a specific ethnic group fighting with the police.

Nevertheless, there was a racial component -- the death of a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, who was shot by police marksmen in Tottenham -- which set off the disorders. That said, it is extremely doubtful whether all of those young people -- white, black and Asian -- caught up in the looting in Roman Road or many other parts of the UK would have known much or indeed anything at all about this incident.

But the riots certainly had something to do with the acquisition of high and low value goods -- the Guardian's veteran political commentator Michael White dubbed them "retail riots". Whatever else this and similar incidents replicated in the capital and elsewhere in England (but not, interestingly, in Scotland or Wales) mean it certainly demonstrates the centrality of consumption in people's lives in an advanced economy like the UK.

Taking a slightly different line, two academic commentators, Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth, writing in the Guardian, very sensibly suggested that it is important to distinguish between incidents that spark unrest, and underlying causes which make it likely. Analysing data on unrest from 28 European countries between 1919 and 2009, and in 11 Latin American countries since 1937 they conclude that there is a strong statistical correlation "between expenditure cuts and the level of unrest". They end the piece with a warning that although social unrest is very hard to predict in terms of timing, things can go dramatically wrong, and the Weimar Republic, Germany's first experiment with democracy, is cited as an example.

On the other hand, historian Leif Jerram, writing on Oxford University Press's blog, argues that disorder in urban areas has been a semi-regular occurrence. He cites gang violence in Glasgow and Manchester between the wars, the anti-Semitic riots in Liverpool in the post-Second World War period, the moral panic about violence between Mods and Rockers in British seaside towns in the 1960s, and so on. Jerram then goes a step further and suggests that terrible as the recent disorders have been, "maybe they're just one of those random things that happen in all sorts of societies from time to time". He adds:

Because by crisis-ifying this, we may in fact be playing right into the hands of those who seek to dismiss whole chunks of our society as being sick or evil or criminal, and thereby avoid having to include them in our vision of the future. Equally, by crisis-ifying it, we might be playing into the hands of those who advocate huge government programmes of interference and intervention where it is unwarranted, ineffective or unwelcome.

I quite like the idea of "randomness" as an explanation of some things that happen in the city. However, in the case of recent rioting and looting in some parts of the UK, I don't think this is the place to start. Far better to assume, as Ponticelli and Voth argue, that there are causes and then try and find out what they are.

For example, we know that most looters were young people -- although the behaviour of older people caught up in the disorders also requires explanation -- so therefore it seems sensible to look at the behaviour of those involved in terms of age, ethnicity, gender and social class. My guess also is that explanations will vary to a greater or lesser extent even within different parts of London -- that is, there will be interesting differences between what happened in Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Tower Hamlets. But I would be very surprised if there were no explanation, and that randomness had to be invoked as the major explanatory variable.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (Cronem), Roehampton University.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.