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Using Mobile Phones to Map the Slums of Brazil

In the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, unnamed streets meander through the hillsides. There are hospitals, coffee shops and restaurants, none of which appear on a map. Mail carriers struggle to deliver letters to homes without addresses.

A new project by Rede Jovem, a Brazilian non-profit that loosely translates to "Youth Net," seeks to change that. With the help of five young "wiki-reporters" and GPS-equipped mobile phones, the non-profit is building a map of five Brazilian favelas: Complexo do Alemão, Cidade de Deus, Morro do Pavão-Pavãozinho, Morro Santa Marta and Complexo da Maré. 

Mapping the Unmapped

By uploading information to the phones, the reporters are mapping the unmapped, one road and cafe at a time.

"The main goal was to mark public interest spots on a map and show places like schools and institutions and hospitals and restaurants," said Natalia Santos, the executive coordinator for Rede Jovem. "We wanted to spread the news about what slums do have, so all the people can get to know that the slum is not just a place for violence and marginality and robbery."

All the reporters are women, according to Santos. Although the project originally intended to have male participants, the men were nervous about being in the favelas with costly mobile phones.

"The boys in the last phase of the selection said they wouldn't have the guts to walk with a cell phone in a slum," said Santos. "Girls can walk with a lot more freedom than boys, and boys get approached by the police."

The reporters are between the ages of 17 and 25, and all are in their final year of high school.  The person that maps the most information will receive a scholarship to study communications or journalism at a private university.

The reporters use GPS-equipped Nokia N95s and a mobile application developed by Rede Jovem that uses Google maps. As they move through the favelas, they label corners, streets and bystreets. The reporters can also add photos or video directly from their phones, and label places like restaurants and hospitals. There is both a website, www.wikimapa.org.br, and a mobile site for the resulting maps. Content added to the maps is also automatically added to a Twitter feed.

Expanding to New Platforms

Funding for the project comes from a 150,000 Brazilian reais (U.S. $87,310) grant from Institutional Oi Futuro, which is affiliated with Oi, the largest telephone operator in Brazil. The project is scheduled to conclude when the funding runs out in December. But Rede Jovem is applying for other grants, according to Santos. In the future, the organization hopes to build a mobile application that works on other operating systems. Currently, the mobile application (available for download here) only works on Symbian phones. "We want everyone who has a cell phone with GPS to be a wiki-reporter," said Santos.

As the maps expand, they will provide more and more useful everyday information. On a larger scale, they also give legitimacy to the residents. "I think they are very happy because they're seeing that they exist," said Santos. "And the mailman says that now he can deliver the mail."

Photos courtesy of Rede Jovem

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