Reuters/Sergio Moraes

Both see potential advertising revenue in the Brazilian slums.

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."

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    Why Are America’s Three Biggest Metros Shrinking?

    After a post-recession boomlet, the New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago areas are all seeing their population decline.

  2. A diamond-like glass-walled church building, lit up from the inside.
    Design

    How a Drive-In Megachurch Became a Catholic Cathedral

    Designed by an acclaimed architect for a famous televangelist, a unique church in Southern California has been transformed.

  3. a map comparing the sizes of several cities
    Maps

    The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

    From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

  4. Tents with the Honolulu skyline behind them
    Life

    Where Is the Best City to Live, Based on Salaries and Cost of Living?

    Paychecks stretch the furthest in smaller cities for most workers, but techies continue to do best in larger, more expensive cities.

  5. Equity

    Capturing Black Bottom, a Detroit Neighborhood Lost to Urban Renewal

    “Black Bottom Street View,” now exhibiting at the Detroit Public Library, thoughtfully displays old images of the historic African American neighborhood in its final days.

×