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Google and Microsoft Are Putting Rio's Favelas on the Map

Both see potential advertising revenue in the Brazilian slums.

Reuters/Sergio Moraes

Brazilian officials would rather you not know about favelas, the city’s historically impoverished shantytowns, which often appear as mysterious and unmarked splotches on tourist maps. But the prospects of the Brazilian slums seem to be rising. Residents say drug and gang-related violence is down and government raids are less frequent. There are even reports that some favelas have become popular non-zip codes (some don’t have them) to live in following this summer’s World Cup. (This particular shift, however, is also connected to efforts by the Brazilian government to force residents out of their homes before the games).

For tech giants Microsoft and Google, however, here’s the really exciting statistic: nearly 1.3 million of the favelas’ 1.5 million residents now have mobile phones, and almost half of them are online. Both companies have recently partnered with local groups to capitalize on that online engagement and map the communities’ sometimes ramshackle infrastructure, the Wall Street Journal reports this morning.  

"A lot of companies are doing this because they know that these are customers and they're no longer excluded from the economic system of Brazil," Ronaldo Lemos, the director of the Institute of Technology and Society in Rio de Janeiro, told the WSJ. "It's good business to map the favelas."

Both Microsoft and Google projects have partnered with community groups and volunteers, who walk the streets of the neighborhoods and enter the locations of local businesses and institutions into their smartphones—becoming, in effect, bipedal Google Street View cars.

There are challenges. Favela residences and businesses sometimes don’t have street addresses, which makes it difficult for those who live there to provide the required information on job applications, sign up for a bank account, or direct fire and police authorities during emergency calls, as the Associated Press reported last year. And some volunteers have reported that they've had to persuade local gang leaders to allow the project the continue.

Tech companies also have a fraught history with the favelas. Brazilian media claims that Google removed the slums from its maps altogether in 2009, after requests from Rio's tourism board. This summer, Google also drew ire after some objected to a cutesy doodle in honor of the World Cup that was seen as making light of the favelas' continuing poverty and violence issues. Some community groups have also blasted both Microsoft and Google for skimping on payments to the groups actually doing the mapping. "It takes a long time to do this work. It's difficult work. And they want it almost for free? It's disrespectful," says Eliana Silva, head of a nonprofit mapping group that's been working in favelas since 2011.

But the mapping projects do have exciting implications for favela business owners. Maria Ribeiro, who owns a laundromat in the Rocinha favela, told the WSJ she’d like to use the mapping technology to “expand her reach.”

"If my shop was on the map maybe more people would find it," she says. "Lots of people have lived here for many years and don't know about my business. Rocinha is really big."

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