How Google Maps is changing Rio de Janeiro's urban slums

A view of Rocinha, Brazil’s biggest favela.

Story and videos by ELROI YEE

It’s night-time in Rio de Janeiro, a month before the 2016 Olympics, and I’m in a dark alley in a favela. According to my Brazilian friend Andre Silva Teixeira Mello, he’s going to show me the real Brazil. The problem is three young favela men – olheiros, watchmen for the drug rings – are blocking our way.

They speak in Portuguese into their walkie-talkie, and tell us to lift our T-shirts to show that we aren’t packing any weapons. They ask Andre what was an Asian man there for. He doesn’t miss a beat: “He wants some good Rio weed.”

It’s just an excuse to get in and it works. The olheiros seem flattered that a foreigner fancies their produce, so they wave us on. Now we are inside Brazil.

For decades, favelas like this one appeared as blank, grey spaces on Google Maps. Government maps didn’t chart favelas accurately either, almost as if nobody wanted to acknowledge the slum-like areas existed. But since 2008, Google has worked to change this through the Ta No Mapa project, meaning “It’s on the map” in Portuguese.

Google worked with local NGO AfroReggae to train favela residents to map their communities. The idea was to chart all the alleys and staircases that give access to favela homes, and list all the points of interest and businesses on Google Maps. So far, 30 of Rio’s 300 favelas have been documented this way.

For favela communities, long known for their poverty and violent crime rates, being left out of maps might have been the least of their concerns. But Ronan Ramos Jr – AfroReggae’s coordinator for Ta No Mapa and the man responsible for coordinating all the local mappers – disagrees.

“Nowadays we have a physical life and we have a digital life, which we live through our smartphones and social networks,” says Ramos Jr, after taking me on a tour of AfroReggae’s hip headquarters in the middle of the notoriously rowdy Lapa neighbourhood. “Being acknowledged in both spheres is very important for everyone, including favela residents.”

Perhaps even more so for favela residents, who in spite being constantly depicted as poor and violent in pop culture, are a proud community. In a survey of 63 favelas around Brazil, 81% of residents said they likes where they lived, and 66% said they wouldn’t leave even if their salaries were doubled.

And with more than half the population equipped with Internet access (eight out of 10 for 16 to 29-year-olds), and 85% of them owning mobile phones, having their beloved hometown listed and acknowledged online is a big deal.

Bar Do David, a restaurant famous for serving Brazilian snacks with a creative twist, was once known only to Chapéu Mangueira favela residents and other locals. But since Ta No Mapa had it listed on Google Maps, business has not only boomed but the restaurant is now considered one of the best favela restaurants in Brazil.

I browse through the awards hanging on the kitchen wall, which crowd around a recommendation certificate from TripAdvisor. “It gives people a point of reference,” says owner and chef David Bispo. “They can find Bar Do David on social media, which makes my job easier.”

Considering most favela businesses are informal operations – lacking registration, and often drawing water and electricity illegally – there was little resistance to Ta No Mapa. The key was the engagement of local mappers, the frontliners of the project who walked the favelas and convinced the owners that having their business listed was a good thing.

“In the beginning, there was some resistance. But as they saw us working and they saw the results, those who resisted started approaching us,” says local mapper Cristiano “Palito” Bento. “By the end of the project, there was not a single person who was still opposing it.”

Each favela takes three months to map. AfroReggae first identifies the favelas that are safe to chart, as there are turf wars between rival gangs at some favelas. Google and AfroReggae then talk to the resident associations to seek their agreement, before working with stakeholders to recruit the mappers.

The mappers are trained in digital cartography, as well as Google’s Map Maker and My Business tools. (Map Maker allows users to edit Google Maps, while My Business creates business listings on Google Search and Google Maps.) They then create maps and business listings as they walk the favela, documenting operating hours and contact details, writing business descriptions and taking photos as they go. up.

Mappers can take 10 weeks to complete a favela. And at the end, a team from Google has to verify the listings and write a report on the area.

Projects like Ta No Mapa are all part of the Google DNA. “We are doing this because it relates to two of our core values, inclusion and diversity,” says Luiz Guilherme Brandao. “There is an invisible wall separating favelas from the cities and we want to break that wall.”

It doesn’t hurt that favelas are a huge market potential. Twelve million Brazilians live in these urban slums, which are not as poor as they seem or used to be. They could, in fact, be Brazil’s new middle class.

Between 2001 and 2013, the average salary of favela-dwellers increased by 54.7%, far outstripping the national increase of 37.9%. During that same period, the proportion of favela-dwellers classified as middle class grew from 32% to 65%. That’s significantly higher than the national middle-class proportion of 54%.

Their economic significance is amplified in Rio, where almost a quarter of its residents live in favelas. A walk through the more developed areas like Rocinha, Brazil’s biggest favela, reveals a vibrant and resourceful community, with an economy so self-sufficient that some locals claim they never have to leave.

Any brand that strikes a chord with this community will likely reap benefits far into the future. But perhaps it is the opportunities brought by initiatives such as Ta No Mapa that is improving the situation.

“If not for my work with AfroReggae, I would probably be dead now,” says Palito.

Born and raised in a favela, Palito was a drug dealer in his youth. The stable income from his work as a mapper, and then as supervising mapper after a promotion, gave him the confidence to get married and start a family. He and his wife have one child.

He points to a block of flats where he now lives. He no longer stays in a favela house. Technology, which at its best is the ultimate socio-economic leveller, has given him a better life, even though still in a favela. He walks Chapeu Mangueira’s alleys with the ease of someone right at home. With the invisible borders that used to separate favelas and cities now blurred, the lines are less stark, and Palito walks right home.

A version of this article first appeared in print in Star2/R.AGE on Aug 16, 2016.

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