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July 03 2011


Documentary - Citizen X: Sao Paulo, portrait of an integrant of movement of the homeless

emphas.is :: In 2007, Sao Paulo’s government launched the “Cidade Limpa” (Clean City) project, with the intention to standardize all visual advertisements throughout the city. This initiative has addressed what was indeed an overwhelming visual pollution, and in this matter it has certainly improved the life of the population.

Initiatives such as Cidade Limpa only deal with the most superficial aspects of the city and its problems. But Sao Paulo’s housing deficit, for instance, is a much bigger problem that affects people’s lives directly and contributes to the degradation of the city in a much more fundamental way than mere visual pollution.

The project seeks crowdfunding supported by emphas.is (crowdfund visual journalism).

Julio Bittencourt is a Brazilian photographer. His work has been published in GEO, Le Monde, The Guardian, Esquire, Photo, among many others. "In a window of Prestes Maia 911 Building", his first book, is the culmination of three years of work in a formerly squatted building in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Help to fund the documentary - Julio Bittencourt, emphas.is

May 11 2011


No Gloom Here: In Latin America, Newspapers Boom

If you spend much time in U.S. newsrooms these days, you might contract a serious case of gloom and doom. Talk is still focused on declining circulations, aging readerships, and the absence of new business models to pay for the production of quality content.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this is the case for the rest of the world. In fact, in many regions, the newspaper business is booming. Some countries' newspapers are pulling in record advertising and those double-digit profit margins that were common in 1990s America.

I recently had the chance to observe this phenomenon firsthand at the Bogota, Colombia, conference of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), where there was little gloom or doom to be found.


Instead, newspapers were reporting extraordinary growth in advertising sales from 2005 to 2009: 62 percent in Argentina, 70 percent in Brazil, and 57 percent in Colombia itself. (These figures, drawn from a ZenithOptimedia forecast, contrasted with 34 percent drops in the U.S. and the U.K. over the same period.)

Newspaper circulation is growing sharply in Brazil (29 percent), modestly in Argentina and Bolivia, and holding steady in Colombia and Chile. (It was down more than 12 percent in the U.S.)

But what's most striking about the Latin American news industry is the sense of dynamism. The digital revolution is coming to Latin America -- but it's arriving hand-in-hand with the news organizations, and that makes all the difference.

Multi-Platform Success

That point was reinforced with a visit to the newsrooms of El Tiempo, Colombia's leading daily. The newspaper understandably prides itself on the way it has implemented newsroom convergence. Its expansive headquarters are a few decades old, but look freshly minted, refitted top to bottom with new technology. They include the daily paper, two television channels (CityTV and Canal El Tiempo), as well as a vast array of online products.

In El Tiempo's model, information is endlessly produced and recirculated across platforms. Pieces that air on the television channels are recut by a team of young online editors into two- and three-minute pieces that can circulate online. Breaking news goes out on Twitter, leading traffic back to the website and the newspaper. Each platform is carefully monitored for editorial quality.

According to newspaper director Roberto Pombo, "We had to appoint a journalist to be our Twitter editor because we had a report that went out on Twitter that diverged from the story on ElTiempo.com. It was a garden-variety error, but it convinced us we needed editors to be responsible for social networks."

Pombo has shaped the paper's news to be platform neutral. "We're going with everything in every medium, and the audience can stay where they are," he said. Pombo said the newspaper El Tiempo, whose staff create much of the core content, generates about a 9 percent profit, which is augmented by profits from the television and online operations. "Our newspaper readers are not diminishing, our online audience is growing, and the ads are holding," he said.

Online earnings are smaller but are growing more rapidly. The company has no plans to charge for online content, but goes to great lengths to leverage cross-promotion.


Spanish Ownership

"You can't carry out convergence as a cost-cutting measure -- but you save money in the long run," Pombo said. "All I care about is that if somebody gets a news update on Twitter and somebody asks, 'Where did you get that,' they answer 'Tiempo.' It's all about the brand."

El Tiempo was founded in 1911 and long operated under the leadership of the Santos family. In 2007 the paper was sold to Planeta, a Spanish publishing group, which had to readjust to the Colombian market.

"The owners are living two realities. There's an economic crisis in Spain, but things are fine here, so we have to explain it to them," Pombo said. Spain's newspapers are suffering worse than those in the U.S.

El Tiempo is not alone in its prosperity. Sebastian Hiller, director of La Vanguardia Liberal in the city of Bucaramanga, said, "Most of the major Colombian papers are making 15-20 percent profits, and some of them 30 percent, especially if they've been investing in convergence." (One exception is the venerable Bogota paper El Espectador, which has recently struggled back from the brink of extinction.)

Slow, Steady Economic Growth Good for News

What explains the robust health of these Latin American news organizations?

The first answer is the local market. The Andean nations have largely dodged the 2008 economic downturn, and have been experiencing steady growth in recent years.

Second, this growth has been more evenly distributed than in the past. Many Latin American countries are seeing incomes rise among the urban poor, and with them disposable income. This is a sweet spot for newspaper sales, since there may be discretionary spending for a daily newspaper, but not enough for a computer and an Internet connection.

In Colombia, as in other Latin American countries, there has been a boom in new tabloids and glossy consumer magazines, many of which subsidize quality broadsheets in the same company. Some of these tabloids have reached circulations of 2 million to 3 million within two years of their launch.

Capturing Digital Sales

Third, and perhaps most intriguing, digital is arriving in Latin America, but more slowly than in the U.S. and Europe. This has allowed news organizations to learn from other markets' mistakes, and claim larger shares of the online advertising space before the search engines and aggregators can dominate it. The managers don't care whether the advertising ends up on paper or online -- as long as it ends up with them.

One of the side benefits of this development is a dramatic rise in quality. A number of papers in the region have expanded their foreign coverage and investigative journalism, and have won the prizes to prove it. (For a striking example, look to Costa Rica's La Nacion, where exemplary reporting in 2004 landed two past presidents in jail.)

This is not to say that everything's rosy south of the border. Mexican newspapers are under attack from narco traffickers and corrupt government officials, while Argentina's leading newspaper, Clarin, is locked in a bitter contest with the government. On the other hand, news media are playing a stronger role in Latin American society than ever before, and their business models may buy them precious time to forge a path into the future.

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and teaches an international teleconference course at Bard College. She is a senior consultant on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. She is on Twitter as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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March 25 2011


CoLab Project Spotlight: Recycling Cooperatives in South and Central America

The MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) is a center for planning and development within MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. CoLab works with low-income communities in putting their assets to work to help improve livelihoods and strengthen civic life and use the market as an arena for achieving social justice.

This blog will periodically feature CoLab project spotlights in an effort to increase idea exchange and collaboration on these projects.

CoLab’s Libby McDonald and MIT students work with local recycling experts on Corn Island in Nicaragua to do a waste sort as part of data collection for determining how to reform Corn Island’s trash collection route.

"I went to a meeting of business owners and government officials in Sao Paulo," says CoLab’s Libby McDonald, "and the businesses were saying, 'We can’t really figure out how to work with the wastepicking cooperatives. How do we ensure that they do regular pick ups? How do we know if they'll even come when they say they will?' And then right after, I went to a meeting with the Sao Paulo Union of Catadores (Wastepickers), and they said, "How are we going to handle the additional tonnage coming from these companies?'"

Brazil recently passed a law mandating that businesses recycle a certain percentage of their waste. The government strongly encouraged businesses to hire informal recycling cooperatives to get the job done.

McDonald coordinates the Green Grease project in Brazil and a similar project in Nicaragua with these informal recycling cooperatives. Working in partnership with them, she assembles teams of students from various MIT departments to research the issues in question and then brings the students to Brazil and Nicaragua to work on-site developing waste management plans.

The key question that these projects seek to answer is: How can informal cooperatives scale up and develop a business model that allows them to work directly with private sector companies and local governments?

McDonald identifies a few important challenges in answering that question:

  • Local governments don’t always recognize informal recycling cooperatives, which provide a legitimate public service. The cooperatives want to be recognized for the services they provide.
  • There is a capacity challenge. The same people who corner the market on local recycling knowledge may not know how to read and write; nonetheless, we need to figure out together how to best manage these businesses.
  • From the MIT end, it is difficult to raise money to cover costs associated with these projects.
  • It’s no simple challenge to figure out how to establish waste-to-energy and recycling businesses. The problem incorporates social issues, class issues, environmental issues, and a business challenge.

A key element, McDonald has discovered, is trust. In Sao Paulo, local recycling cooperatives are agile and timely in collecting household waste and processing it. But when it comes to working with hotels and other private companies, there is a disconnect. The relationships aren’t there, and although the cooperative is capable of doing the work, they are almost never hired to do it.

March 08 2011


How to Design a Simple Newsgame Authoring Tool

Our teams at Georgia Tech and UC Santa Cruz have been working on an authoring tool that helps journalists quickly create bite-sized newsgames. The Cartoonist has been the working title for the tool because our intention is to create games akin to editorial cartoons, in terms of the amount of information being conveyed and the style of representation. But despite this small scope, the promise of this tool requires intense research and design.

Over the past half-year, we have been faced with a daunting question: How do you create something that can generate games for a seemingly endless list of topics?

Where to Begin?

We started by looking at classic arcade and Atari 2600 games and broke them down into their various components. We then asked questions about what these components mean individually and when interacting with each other. Does Pac-Man eating ghosts map to something metaphorically? Does splitting a dangerous object into two pieces in Asteroids have rhetorical implications? How do familiar game mechanics like shooting, chasing, jumping, racing, and getting power-ups parallel real-world actions?

Games are good at explaining systems and can work through processes to produce variable outcomes. A journalist might report on a story about a local business that gave a politician money in hopes of securing the passage of a beneficial ordinance. What we want is for a journalist to enter this kind of simple relationship into the tool and for it to generate a game that explains the process.

A Unique Concept

Trying to understand how the dynamics of news stories relate to the dynamics of games we found a middle ground of representation in the form of a concept map. This is a way of thinking about actors, relationships, and actions in a news event.

The story is distilled into verb relations between actor nodes while the game is distilled into mechanical relations between actor nodes. The authoring tool is able to group relations and nodes together to produce patterns of events. If one politician is receiving large donations when running for office against another politician, the tool interprets the effect of the donations on the race and makes up tasks for the player and goals to achieve in a game.


Consider the example above. Some citizens of Rio de Janeiro are buying drugs from the gangs, who terrorize the rest of Rio's population. Citizens are demanding help from the Brazilian government, which is using the police to arrest the gangs, who are fighting back. It appears to be a complicated set of relationships that don't obviously translate into a game.

But our tool can interpret these relationships as meaningful patterns: The fear of the citizens is self-perpetuating; the government is indirectly battling the gangs by enabling the police; the gangs have the resources to fight back. Rather than take each of the bubbles piece by piece, the tool looks for groups of relationships to turn into game dynamics.

Simplifying Complexity

What actually makes this happen is far more complex than this description implies. It involves picking appropriate and compatible game mechanics (things moving around the screen, colliding with each other, competing for resources, etc.). But it has been important to have a simple layer of representation that makes it easier to think about this process in our project and discuss it with the journalists who will use it when it is completed.

Our goal is for the journalist to never have to think about how the game is being built. Instead, they focus on what they do best -- synthesizing current events -- and leave the rest to us.

January 13 2011



EXTRA (Globo Group) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a great example of how a popular newspaper can be a good newspaper and do serious journalism.

Like this almost “show, don’t tell” front page.

Just the facts, just the pictures and a compelling headline.

Well done!

December 20 2010


Brazilian Public Media Faces Tough Digital Transition

Belém, BRAZIL -- At the mouth of the Amazon river, vendors at the Ver-o-Peso market display the region's fruits, fish and crafts on splintered tables and rusting carts. They hail prospective buyers who pass by their closely packed stalls. Just a block over, behind the security gate of the Estação das Docas, a collection of renovated waterfront warehouses, eco-tourists stroll in air conditioned comfort past many of the same goods, which have been marked up and packaged as artisanal delights. The night I visit, one of these former warehouses is dedicated to a pop-up fashion fair for rising designers; a female DJ spins club tunes and ironic T-shirts mock souvenir gear.

Such cheek-to-jowl contradictions are common in Brazil, where income disparities are among the highest in the world, and megacities like São Paulo compete for national resources with tiny towns tucked deep in the rainforest. That reality makes it a challenge for the country's strapped public broadcasting outlets to create content to serve such a wide range of publics. This was the topic of an early December conference, TV Pública: Forum Internacional de Conteúdo, held in Belém's state-of-the-art Hangar Convention Center.

Public Broadcasting Coalesces

Public broadcasting is relatively young in Brazil. While TV Cultura, a private, foundation-funded channel offering arts, kids, documentary and sports programming has been around since the '60s, it was only in late 2007 that the government launched TV Brasil, a federally funded public broadcasting network. It airs Brazilian films, regional and educational programming, and sports. The channel's national over-the-air reach is limited, but it is available via cable, satellite and online.

Locally, public stations perform a variety of functions -- such as providing access to legislative proceedings, educational content and community outreach -- but they are not networked together via shared programming, as PBS member stations are. Now they are centrally administered, as in the case of the BBC. This lack of coordination, and the limited resources allotted these stations via local government funds, will soon be compounded further as the country undertakes the switch from analog to digital broadcast.

The conference, organized by the Brazilian Association of Public, Educational and Cultural Broadcasters, explored these challenges from a variety of perspectives, including content, program coordination and scheduling, infrastructure, funding, management, unwelcome government interference in program choices, and training of a new generation of public media makers. One key question is how stations might possibly hope to fill the four digital channels they will soon acquire in exchange for their one analog signal.

While some independent and non-profit content is broadly available from sources such as
Itaú Cultural
, a cultural institute which subsidizes the distribution of regional arts and music programming to stations, few syndication or rights-sharing arrangements have been developed. Many of the attendees had been to previous conferences to tackle these issues, but this was the first international gathering designed to bring perspectives in from other countries about how to manage such a thorny transition.

brazil pubilc media1.jpg

Digital Disruption

Simultaneously, Brazilian communications and cultural authorities are working to figure out how to harness online and mobile technologies for the public good. Just weeks before, the Digital Culture conference issued a "declaration of Internet rights," which asserted "diversity and freedom are the foundation [of] democratic communication. Internet access is a fundamental right." At the TV Pública conference, one speaker described NavegaPara, a project to provide Internet access in the state of Pará, including remote areas of the Amazon.

Questions about how to use the pending digital broadcast signal to provide interactivity or web access via TV dogged the conference. The digital divide is much wider in Brazil than the U.S. While nearly 95 percent of Brazilians have access to television, high taxes and low incomes make electronic device purchases steep; wiring this large and sometimes rugged country has so far proven difficult.

Of course, none of this has stopped citizen reporters from putting the latest technologies to work. As Global Voices reported:

Young residents in the Complexo do Alemão favelas in Rio de Janeiro have begun using social and citizen media to chronicle the recent wave of violence spreading through the city. Seventeen-year-old aspiring journalist Rene Silva has set up a Twitter account, @vozdacomunidade (voice of the community), to monitor the police occupation of the favela complex, with the related hashtag, #vozdacomunidade, already beginning to trend. Meanwhile, @Igorcomunidade is also offering updates of what he calls "a guerra do alemão" (Alemão's War), and another group of young locals has started streaming footage of the occupation.

As in the U.S., producers with one foot in the old and new media worlds are growing a bit weary of discussing the myriad transitions, and are now eager to start building multi-platform public media models that can thrive. Francisco Belda, the director of a local newspaper near São Paulo that is considering ways to transition from print to digital is also a professor at São Paulo State University. He led a workshop at the TV Pública conference on how to create a new programming grid for public stations. We discussed his impatience with the pace of both industry and policy change.

"I'm tired of all this talk," he told me. "We are ready for action."

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media Project at American University's Center for Social Media, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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November 29 2010


The best online projects that monitored Brazil’s 2010 Elections

“Last year, electoral reform opened the door for politics 2.0 by authorizing parties to use social networks to raise campaign donations and participate in streamlined debates”, claims Manuella Ribeiro about the recent Brazilian election that made Dilma Rousseff the new president.

Ribeiro made a compilation of the best online projects that worked on transparency, civic engagement and public policies monitors. Here are my personal favorites:

eu lembro

Eu lembro: “Be a voter with an elephant’s memory. Vote and remember everything that happens to politicians”.

VotenaWeb: “A site where you can approach the decisions of National Congress that directly affect your life. Vote and be heard”. Citizens can compare, with an easy interface, their votes on bills and the votes of politicians. The congressional bills are translated into simple language and you can monitor the voting records of different candidates.

Quanto vale seu candidato?: in English “How much is your candidate worth?” is a nice piece of data journalism with information about the patrimony of candidates.

eleitor 2010

Eleitor 2010: developed with Ushahidi to monitor the elections, receive and map complaints about electoral crimes through Twitter, SMS, email and social networks.

Adote um Vereador: encourages citizens to “adopt” a city councilman and open blog about their work to keep an eye on them and their parliamentary activities.

September 01 2010




The Sao Paulo futbol club is a very popular one.

So SP went crazy this week and today the new Diario de S. Paulo changed its masthead to celebrate the anniversary.

Well done!


July 01 2010


NYTimes.com: Brazilian journalists want goal-line reporting

In soccer-mad Brazil, radio and television reporters stand behind the goals and along the sideline during matches. Technically, they are restricted to interviewing players before matches, at half-time and after the final whistle. But sometimes they get a few comments after goals are scored or when players receive red-card ejections. Once, they were even known to follow Pelé into the shower.

The New York Times looks at the frustrations of the Brazilian journalists covering the World Cup as they are restricted to media areas in the stadia for Brazil’s games and have to watch non-Brazil matches on a television screen in the media centre away from the ground.

There are security and exclusivity issues here, of course, but are Brazilian readers and viewers losing the access and immediacy they have become accustomed to in football journalism?

Full story from the New York Times at this link…Similar Posts:

April 14 2010


Will 'Telecentros' Transform Cuba's Internet Access?

It wasn't your typical keynote address.

Earlier this month, at an event held on the campus of Cornell University, a room of people gazed at a blank screen in rapt attention, listening to a woman speak over a weak cell phone connection originating in Cuba.

The speaker was Cuba's 32-year-old star blogger, Yoani Sanchez. The event was the seventh annual meeting of Roots of Hope, an organization founded by Cuban-American students that aims to promote cultural exchanges with the island. Its April meeting was specifically focused on new media. (I was invited as a panelist.) Attendees had been told that the keynote speaker would be a surprise. After a nail-biting series of dropped calls, the attendees were thrilled to hear Sanchez finally come on the line.

yoani.jpgSanchez told her U.S. audience how she had assembled her personal computer by foraging for discarded components, and devised an online publishing strategy that relied on scarce computers, cell phones, and flash drives. Last year, her blog posts and tweets earned her a spot on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Sanchez epitomizes the Cuban online community's ingenious response to the dual restrictions of government censorship and the U.S. trade embargo. Some call it the "hacker mindset." In the same fashion that Cubans manage to keep the chassis of 50 year-old old Chevys on the road, a small but growing Cuban tech community has learned how to go online against the odds.

Thanks to cooperation from other countries in Latin America, a new attitude in Washington, and the work of NGOs, Cuba may be poised to make big online strides.

The Cuban Paradox

When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba 51 years ago, he launched a revolution that has been fueling controversy ever since. Supporters lauded Cuban advances in health care and education, while detractors condemned the government's heavy-handed measures against everything from private enterprise to gay rights.

The Cuban paradox extends to the media. Although Cuba has achieved one of the highest literacy rates in the hemisphere, it also has earned the most dismal record on freedom of expression. The government controls all news media, and takes harsh measures against any domestic or foreign journalist who steps out of line.

It's not surprising that digital media have been slow to get off the ground in Cuba. They have been woefully hampered by Cuban government censorship, but another major factor has been the decades-old U.S. embargo, which has starved the island of the technologies necessary for modernization.

Something of a double standard has been at work: At the same time Communist countries such as China have been transformed by economic investment and educational exchanges with the U.S., Cuba has been left as an isolated backwater. Only 3 percent of Cuba's 11 million citizens have cell phones, giving it the lowest cell phone penetration in Latin America. It also has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates. The government's restrictions on cell phone ownership and Internet access have further limited communications, often making them a privilege for the party faithful.

Fiber Optic Cable in Cuba

Today a new wave of online media is promising to challenge the Cuban status quo -- and surprisingly, some of the changes are the result of government initiatives. The first one is a fiber optic cable currently being laid between Cuba and Venezuela. It's expected to be completed within a year.

Another new development is arriving by way of Brazil's "Telecentro" program. Telecentros are public computer labs that use open source software and provide free Internet access. They are designed for poor and under-served communities and have been a wild success in Brazil. Ten thousand of them are scheduled to be in service in that country by the end of the year. Brazil is now exporting the model to Ecuador, Venezuela, and Cuba, aiming for a total of 52,000. The Cuban Telecentros are mainly designed to support primary education, but they are available after hours to other community members.

nxs-logo2.jpgOpen source software is playing a key role in the Telecentros. Ryan Bagueros, the owner and founder of NorthxSouth, a software development company that describes itself as a "network of open source developers from all over the Americas," said Brazil and other Latin American governments are unenthusiastic about the high cost and security leaks of U.S.-made proprietary software. (Bagueros joined me on a panel at the annual meeting of Roots of Hope.) He noted that these Latin American countries are investing heavily in developing open source alternatives, and expanded via email about the value of open source software:

Marcos Mazoni (the head of Brazil's federal committee to migrate to open source), conducted a survey last year and, from the free software migration that has already been completed, Brazil is saving $209 million USD each year. When the migration is complete, Brazil should be saving around $500 million USD each year. Brazil, as a whole, spends about $1 billion USD on software licensing each year.

The emphasis on open source is helping to stimulate a Latin tech boom, with the Brazilian tech industry poised to reap substantial advantages. It's too early to predict the impact, but the initial signs are intriguing. Not only have the Latin governments saved millions of dollars on software, but the open-source Telecentros are creating new generations of pre-teen software developers in the favelas.

During our session, Bagueros predicted that this phenomenon could be particularly interesting in Cuba. He reported that embargo restrictions have created a generation of "engineers who are good at 'reverse engineering' software for donated medical equipment" and other devices. The combination of hacker ingenuity, loosened government control, and dramatically increased bandwidth and access could lead to big things, fast, in Cuba.

New Winds from the North

In the past, tensions between Cuba and the United States have complicated every development in communications. The Bush Administration has been criticized for politicizing media development by supporting groups seeking to overthrow the government. One private contractor, dispatched to secretly hand out cell phones and laptops in Cuba, was arrested for espionage last December

The Obama administration is experimenting with a different approach. In March, the Treasury Department modified trade sanctions to allow the export of social media and related technologies to Cuba, Iran, and the Sudan. In combination with the upcoming technological advances, this move could energize online Cuban freedom of expression, and provide the first real alternative to Cuba's geriatric official news media. (Though it's important to note that the administration recenlty took something of a harder line with Cuba.)

At the same time, new initiatives are appearing in the Cuban-American community. One of the initiatives supported by Roots of Hope is an ongoing cell phone drive called Cells4Cuba.

"[Politically,] I'm to the right myself," said Miguel Cruz, a Cells4Cuba activist from the University of Texas. "But these cell phones are for any youth in Cuba, no matter what their politics."

Roots of Hope has enlisted the support of Cuban-Americans ranging from Gloria Estefan to Perez Hilton, and its membership represents a variety of political perspectives. Its stated goal is to open a dialogue between youth in Cuba and the U.S., and the organization sees social media as a perfect conduit.

Social media won't change the contentious nature of the Cuba debate, and the new developments raise as many questions as they answer. Will the Cubans and Venezuela's mercurial Hugo Chavez attempt to control the data stream on their fiber optic cable? Will Cuban officials try to emulate China's army of Internet censors to control content, trace dissidents, or conduct online espionage? Will Latin American tech initiatives find new ways to harness digital media for social goals? What role will Latin America's open source initiatives play in shifting political alignments?

However these issues play out, it's clear that so far, Cubans have energetically taken advantage of every new online opportunity that's come along -- and that's not likely to change.

Image of Yoani Snachez by blogpocket via Flickr

Anne Nelson teaches new media and development communications at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She consults for a number of foundations on media issues, and serves as senior consultant for the Salzburg Global Seminar initiative, Strengthening Independent Media. She was a 2005 Guggenheim fellow for her recent book, "Red Orchestra: the Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of
Friends Who Resisted Hitler."

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January 29 2010


Creating Community Video Entrepreneurs in Brazil

Late last year, Stalin K., my partner in the Knight-funded project Video Volunteers, and I were seated in the video laboratory of VCU.br in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We were joined by nine of VV's new Brazilian Video Fellows.

We were there to conduct a workshop about entrepreneurship in the creative field of video. The purpose of our recently-launched program in Sao Paulo is to create "video entrepreneurs," and this post is a snapshot of one of the exercises we did while we were there.

The nine young people were all from favela/periphery areas of Sao Paulo, and on that day we were conducting a workshop on how to market to clients. One young man started to read aloud from his introduction:

My name is Allan Jones. I'm 24 years old and live in the Guarulhos municipality of Sao Paulo State. My parents were born in the Amazon. My mother works as a seamstress and my father, I do not know who he is. I graduated high school only last year because the work I had to do did not allow me to study. I've worked in several areas, including as an installer of air conditioning, and around this time I had the opportunity to visit several theaters and see many shows. It was there that sparked my desire to work with theater and learn video.

Today I'm part of the project VCU.br, which is about how young people can work as independent videomakers, and I want to work in the area of script and production. I'm making a video about community theater in my area. My video tells the story of Mrs. Santa Catarina, an independent artist. She is self-taught and without resources or support, but manages to run a theater workshop in the community of Vila Isabel, in Guarulhos."

h2. Turning Disadvantages Into Advantages

The primary purpose of the exercise was to teach these young people to write compelling video proposals for different clients. But the deeper purpose is to teach them to turn their disadvantages into advantages, and to inspire others to see it that way.

If they are going to go into the market and compete with professionals, they must be able to communicate the value of their personal perspective. Why? Because their perspective as people who live close to the stories they are telling is the only thing they have that a professional does not. The problem is that they have spent so long hiding the fact that they're from the disadvantaged parts of the city that they're reluctant to write about it.

The personal narratives they wrote during the workshop revealed the challenges faced by the poor in the big cities like Rio, Sao Paulo or Mumbai. These include the long distances the poor have to travel from their homes to work in the city centers; the high costs of public transportation; the need to support their families financially; and insufficient public schools. In terms of our exercise, they all also highlighted the fact that they didn't have any professional contacts.

For one participant, all it took was a kind word from a TV reporter covering a story in his favela when he was 16 to give him the courage to ask for advice and tips about breaking into TV news. That was a turning point, and it gave him the conviction to pursue a career in media. Compare that to the 101 pieces of career advice that a privileged young person will receive by the time she is 21. Is it any wonder our Fellows seemed a little incredulous when we told them that their backgrounds are in fact a strength?

"It's because we live there that we're unique!"

As the days went by, the Fellows learned the step-by-step process of managing an independent video business, from identifying clients and writing proposals to creating a budget and rate sheet and "closing the deal."

But, really, they were learning to tell and celebrate their personal stories, and to find the personal connection that makes all work meaningful. We told them that they need to dig deep inside themselves to find this connection. Being an entrepreneur, ultimately, is about finding your personal power and confidence, and believing in yourself and your ideas.

The reality is that even if they send a compelling favela story to a television producer, the TV producer will always have the option of sending his own more "professional" freelancers to cover it. Our Fellows/Producers need to learn to convince people that they have something the professionals don't -- a perspective that will enlighten and captivate the audience.

After a couple of hours of them slightly struggling to "get" this concept, Beatrice jumped up. She is a beautiful and lively girl. Over the course of our three weeks together, her hair transformed from extension corn braids to a Nefertiti-style tall wrap to, finally, a beautiful disco-inspired Afro.

"I see!" she said. "It's because we live there that we're unique!"

From there, they started making the connections. One girl, Layla, used to work handing out fliers on the street. She knows what it's like to feel invisible on the street and have people walk by you as you try to get their attention. That's why she can tell an interesting story about street artists that have to fight for the acknowledgment of passersby. Another girl, Juliet, is the right person to tell a story about schizophrenia because her brother is schizophrenic.

A third person felt inspired to tell the stories of stray and injured animals because he used to see dogs getting run over when he worked as a delivery driver. This was just one exercise, but the process, I think, was key to the whole idea of community video as a social venture for the poor. Community producers need to be their own agents in terms of convincing the "market" of the value of their background. That means not just having self expression -- a voice -- but also self-reflection, and a large degree of self-awareness.

Identifying Entrepreneurs

Going into this project, one of our concerns was whether we would we be able to find people who were entrepreneurial, and who would want to run their own video business. The reality is that other jobs are less satisfying, but they can guarantee work. We had our doubts about whether entrepreneurship could be taught, so we needed to find that drive in our Fellows/Producers.

Business skills are easy to teach, but personal drive or motivation is another thing. Not everyone is an entrepreneur. If we were to tell our staff one day, "from today onwards, no one is getting monthly checks; instead, everyone needs to earn their own salary," most people would quit. Yet that's what many people in the NGO sector expect the poor to do.

As we saw our group's business plans develop, we became convinced they were the right people. All are committed to a career in video; all are committed to developing their own creativity, and to working for their communities.

For example, Rafael is now writing government proposals for him to create video projects in the slums. Luana is pursuing internships with TV stations they connected with during the project. Another participant, Layla, had this to say:

My experience in VCU.br was so good and the other Video Producers are such interesting people. Next year, I hope we'll get together to make some production companies. I want to really go ahead with videos, and I think I also have the capacity for fiction, too. I don't want everyone here to go off on their own and leave the group, so I'm thinking about how to make the idea of a group production company happen. Some of us love to write, some like to produce, others to edit. For me, we have a production company right here.

Stalin and I are convinced, as we always are with our community producers, of one thing: there is an abundance of undiscovered talent and knowledge out in the world, and we need to start tapping into it. When you give people opportunities, and you help them find their voice, there is no end to what they can achieve.

January 27 2010


An Overview of Community Media in Brazil

Almost undoubtedly, Brazil is the country with the largest public investment in community arts and culture. There are dozens of groups teaching video, hip-hop, graffiti, circus arts, carnival-related arts and digital media to youth from the favelas. In Rio alone, we visited five groups doing community arts, and between them we calculated there were roughly 500 kids from favelas this year alone learning video up to a semi-professional level.

By contrast, when we started Video Volunteers in India, there were only two other groups in the country running permanent programs in community video. So the difference in Brazil, where we recently launched, was amazing and wonderful to see.

Below I've collected some of our observations about Brazil, and listed a few of the inspiring moments and facts regarding Brazil's community media that we learned during our month spent visiting the different groups. (I hope I've gotten all the facts correct, but please correct me if you see any mistakes in what I've written below; much of this information is from notes I took during fascinating discussions.)

Brazil's Commitment to Community Media

The Brazilian government is committed to supporting community arts and culture. There is a three percent tax break for corporations that support the arts, and this only applies to the arts! The government created a "points of culture" program around the country, where they have invested in 150 community arts projects to the tune of R$150,000 (around $75,000) per year, for three years. Many of the media NGOs we visited were funded in this way. The singer Gilberto Gil is currently the minister for culture and, given that he's one of the most revered celebrities in the country, this focuses citizens' attention on the importance of the arts.

It makes sense that this level of investment would be happening in Brazil and not in countries where poverty is more prevalent. One of the major societal challenges in Brazil is to keep young kids from favelas out of gangs and drugs and violence. Speaking to them in the languages they understand and love -- hip-hop, graffiti, video -- is possibly the best strategy for reaching disaffected youth.

Susan Worcman, director of the Brazil Foundation, said this is because "artistic talent in Brazil is generally very high. We have a lot of creative people." Driving around Sao Paulo seems to confirm this. The city is the graffiti capital of the world, and some artists from favelas have exhibited in major museums in Europe.

All over the city, as much in the hipster area of Villa Madelaina as in the favelas, you see incredible graffiti murals. It integrates the middle classes with the favelas in powerful ways. For instance, there was a community fresco program in Sao Paulo a few years ago, where kids from favelas worked with professional artists to create frescoes on the sides of buildings all over the city. All of the works included plaques reminding people that they were produced by slum kids.

The quality of community arts work is generally very high. Several NGO programs were started either by famous film directors (such as, Cinema Nosso which grew out of the film, City of God), TV producers (Instituto Criar in Sao Paulo, which was started by a Globo Executive) or musicians (such as Afro Reggae, which was started by a hip-hop artist).

As a result, community video work has been seen on TV, won awards, and one even resulted in a feature movie deal ("Cine Cufa," though the project may now be on hold). For us, we've put less emphasis on how artistic a community film is and focus more on how it will inspire action. But because of their quality, these Brazilian films are more marketable to the mainstream.

Photography Class at Observatorio de Favelas

The purpose of most of the community media groups we met is to empower youth to fight stereotypes about the favelas that dominate Brazilian media. One great organization we visited is the urban planning organization Observatorio de Favelas. Its very name implies changing the point of reference of who is watching whom. It is about the favelas observing the rest of the city, and this is a very different way of doing urban planning. Instead of talking about the "city center" and "periphery areas," they highlight areas of high and low public investment.

Portrayal of Favelas in the Media

It is clear after spending even a brief time in Brazil that the image presented of the favelas in the media is as sites of violence. They are never shown as the culturally and creatively rich areas they are. This creates real fear among the middle class population of Brazil.

The receptionist at our hotel begged us not to go to a certain area when we asked her for directions. Cab drivers refuse to take people to some places. The point of most of the community media we saw is to challenge the stereotypes and teach the kids to be critical of the media. (As a result, there is relatively little community media/journalism being done the way VV does it, where the purpose is to screen media back to communities.)

Arts and Culture vs. News and Information

Each country VV has worked in has a different outlook or way of using community media. In India, at least in terms of our work, media is a tool to empower people to take action; it is a tool to accelerate other social change efforts. In the U.S., the scene is much more about news and information, and how we can respond to the current crisis in journalism.

In other parts of South America, there is a very strong indigenous media scene that unites different tribes. In Brazil, the focus is definitely "community arts and culture." It's about community media as a right in itself, and as an educational tool. Most of the organizations we met were focused primarily on training, as opposed to the distribution of that content or its use.

Brazil Media Stats

We learned some interesting media and policy facts from our conversations with Flavio at Ashoka, Bia Barbosa at Intervoces, and John Prideaux, the Economist's correspondent in Brazil. Newspaper readership in Brazil is extremely low compared to other countries. TV is by far the dominant information source in the country, and nearly everyone watches only one channel, Globo.

We saw for ourselves how media-watching habits seem much more unified in Brazil. A recent and very popular "telenovela" was a drama set in India, and everyone mentioned it to us. People were coming up to my Indian partner Stalin in the subway, giving him a Namaste bow and repeating "arre baba." It's just one of the ways you see these two incredibly strong emerging markets coming together through globalization.

Ninety percent of the country is reached by terrestrial TV, thanks mainly to the efforts of Globo. Very few people have cable or satellite TV. We asked Barbosa at Intervoces if media activists and community media organizations had tried to jointly create a TV channel, given that there is such a huge amount of content produced by community media groups. She said an impediment to this is the fact that terrestrial TV is the only option.

All of Brazil media is controlled by six families/companies, and there are no limits on cross ownership of media, or on how much of the audience one company can reach. Barbosa is fighting for the introduction of these limits, because as it stands corporations are able to heavily influence public opinion. Other policy efforts undertaken by media activists include:

  • The creation of independent public TV, a la BBC, which doesn't currently exist. The government recently created an education channel, which did create more space for socially relevant media -- but it is controlled by the government.
  • The increasing of diversity on television. Barbosa said that with so many community media groups and productions, the government should make space for programming that truly reflects the diversity of the country.
  • The liberalization of Internet laws. One upcoming fight will be to allow political parties to use the Internet to gain support. What Barack Obama's did with the Internet would currently be illegal in Brazil.

There is clearly much more to learn about the movements in Brazil to reform and democratize the media, and these are just our first impressions.

January 11 2010


Lessons Learned When Expanding Video Volunteers to Brazil

Video Volunteers recently started a new program in Brazil that is focused on using video as a way for young people from favelas to earn a living. Starting a project in a new country has been an interesting, but also challenging, process.

When I started VV in 2003, we did a few projects in countries such as Brazil, Rwanda, Uganda and the U.S. in addition to India, where we are currently based. But at that point, what we were doing was relatively easy: identifying volunteers, designing some basic video training modules or film script ideas, and sending them off. Once we came up with the idea for the Community Video Units, we realized we needed to focus on one country. The work was too intense for us to be able to manage in several countries, especially given the hands-on nature of community media.

Making the Decision to Expand

In our experience, social change initiatives that are based on empowerment, voice, and creativity are hard to replicate. This is because the training needs to be of such high quality, and the projects need a lot of hands-on management. So we focused on India for three years, always telling ourselves, "next year... next year... we'll be ready to launch outside of India."

Our board and other mentors seemed to be divided about whether we should expand. Will it detract from the work in India and spread us too thin? Do we need to be in other countries in order to continue to learn and test our models? Are there practical issues like availability of funding or being perceived as "global" that make it smart to expand? These are some of the questions we debated.

In the end, one thing really convinced us: the Brazilian community arts and culture scene. It is so rich and fascinating, and probably the biggest in the entire world. It's also producing some amazing media. We had to be there.

Lessons Learned

Now that we have finally expanded outside of India, here are some lessons we've learned that might be relevant to organizations of a similar size.

Understand Cultural Differences: This is the hardest -- and the best -- thing about working in another country. One big difference between Brazil and India are the priorities and outlooks of the groups working in citizen/community media/journalism. In India, community media is generally seen as a tool, never as an end in itself. So for VV, though we are motivated personally by the belief that the right to speak and be heard is a human right, we also see our work as a tool for community-led development, strengthening local governance, etc. In India, media and information are seen as tools for poverty alleviation or human rights -- probably because India's problems in these areas are so much deeper than in a richer country such as Brazil.

In Brazil, by contrast, community media is first and foremost a form of creative expression for youth. The primary purpose is giving people a voice to combat misrepresentation. That's what funders and the government seem to demand. As a result, the videos are very high quality, and the young people in the youth media/journalism programs are free to express themselves about whatever they wish. But because the environment (meaning primarily the funding environment) allows these groups to stay focused only on empowerment and self-expression, issues like mainstream distribution, sustainability and job creation seem like they are not happening at the level they could.

We found people in Brazil seem to doubt the importance (as well as the feasibility) of young people earning a living as a result of these programs, which I think is a big cultural difference between the non-profit world in Brazil compared with the U.S. and India. Livelihood, sustainability, and revenue creation are ingrained in the thinking in the non-profit world in the U.S. and India. The issue they are dealing with in urban Brazil is youth violence and disaffection. Perhaps people have realized that the best way to combat these issues is not livelihoods and jobs, but empowerment and self-expression. I wish there was actual research on this fascinating question.

Think About Organizational Setup: Do you want to start with your own office in a new country, or partner your way in? In Brazil, the pro bono lawyers at Lex Mundi told us we had two options. We could register as a Brazilian non-profit, staff it locally, and then begin work. Or we could identify a partner NGO to hire as consultants. At VV, to say the least, institution-building is not our strong point. We could not imagine starting in Brazil by first taking a year or two to go through legal and government processes of registering. (Also, registering and opening an office would have been prohibitively expensive for us.)

We knew we first needed to do a pilot project in order to gauge the possibility of success. Then, with that completed, we could work on registering. That said, there were also drawbacks to the other option. Working through consultants and partners means less control and potentially less ownership. Some people might see you as a funder in their country, and people will question how committed you are to the country for the long term. But on the plus side, things can get going really quickly.

Choose Your Partners Carefully: We initially developed a proposal with one organization in Brazil. Then, for various reasons, realized we should go our separate ways. It took us almost a year to find another partner, and we interviewed several different groups to find one that would be suitable. After speaking to several of the leading media organizations in Brazil, we decided that the most important thing for us was to go with a group we trusted and felt like we knew well. A good "gut feeling" about the organization was more important than going for the most experienced group in our field. Very vague, I know.

Our eventual partner, Casa Das Caldeiras, did not have any video experience when we started this project, but I could tell that, as a relatively new organization themselves, they would make this project a priority. They have as much riding on its success as we do. I could sense integrity, energy, passion and creativity -- and these were the most important qualities. So far, it's been a great partnership. They are focused on the visual arts, and run artists-in-residency programs, as well as working with lots of Sao Paulo non-profits that run programs in the slums on hip-hop, painting, graffiti, and more. So all of this creativity is influencing our project.

Expect Some Things to be Lost in Translation: Managing things at a distance is hard. For our project, it's been a challenge to run the entrepreneurship side of the project from afar. CDC has managed the video production side of things fantastically. They've selected great fellows, who are producing exactly the kind of videos we need in a very short period of time. But the video entrepreneurship elements are harder for them, I think, because it is so new.

VV has been obsessing about the issue of earned income for three years now, and we have a lot of ideas and learnings to transfer to the project in Brazil. But this transfer of knowledge has been harder than we expected. It's an area where face-to-face contact is critical, and so it was very important that Stalin K., a VV board member and media and human rights activist, and I could spend the whole month of October in Brazil.

All in all, going beyond India has been a good step for Video Volunteers. I'd love to hear from other people running small or medium-sized NGOs who can share their own stories and lessons from expanding to different countries. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

January 04 2010


The Fascinating Innovators of Brazil Community Media

During our month in Brazil working on our new project VCU.br, my partner Stalin and I met with more than a dozen different community media groups. Every meeting was too short, with us starting off by explaining why we had called them and explaining our work, and then them explaining theirs, and then a brief -- too brief -- discussion about what we could do together.

All the while we typed away at our laptop, eager to capture all the innovations and unique stories of the Brazilian community/alternative media innovators. Below are our meeting notes, which we hope give a little snapshot of some of the amazing work being done here. I apologize to all the people we met for any mistakes and misrepresentation. When you're eager to get the full picture in a whirlwind meeting, sometimes the details get lost!

Karen Worcman of the Museum of the Person

The Museum of the Person started by Karen Worcman is an archive of 12,000 personal stories which they have been recording from private citizens the world over for decades. These stories are captured in several ways, many unsolicited by the museum itself -- people wanting to share their stories, write their personal histories and mail them to the museum, knowing they will be archived for history; people come to the museum's recording studio and are interviewed; and museum staff go out into the world to gather the stories.

They also do workshops with NGOs around the world, such as one with Dream Catchers in Tamil Nadu, or by putting up "story booths" in buses and train stations, and going into public schools in Sao Paulo to teach kids to document the histories of their neighborhoods. The stories are archived in a state-of-the-art manner, and most will eventually be online. Already they are searchable and highly used by academics and researchers and school teachers who use the archive to research particular themes -- such as trade unions, war, death, family, etc.

We asked Karen about the purpose of the histories. Is it for social change, community action, personal transformation, or a political statement about everyone's right to a voice? She said one major purpose is to create a record of the personal stories of everyone on the planet. This is a museum after all.

We also asked about the process and the methodology. Because most of the personal histories are in video and they work with the Center for Digital Storytelling (with whom they organize the "day of sharing life stories" once a year) in the Bay Area in the U.S. which has a very set process for story creation, we thought she might have a training methodology that we could incorporate in our work. She said the methodology changes for the purpose of the project, but that when she conducts the interviews, her methodology is that of a historian. Though most of her materials were in Portueguese, she offered to share with us her curriculum that she created in Tamil Nadu which is in English, and we will surely incorporate this methodology into our training.

Stalin pointed out the power of this method for documenting village histories in India, as he has done with KMVS, where they wrote the personal histories of everyone of the 900 villages in Kutch, for broadcast on the community radio stations. Karen's methodology could be very useful for the community radio scene in India, which (with licenses only being allowed for the past three years) is struggling for methodologies for creating content.

A few things struck us in particular in meeting Karen: one is the documentary use of this content for research and academia. We have wondered whether there is interesting anthropological evidence in our raw video tapes from the CVUs, and Karen has demonstrated the importance of community media for research purposes. The other is the seriousness of the archive. She has made dozens, if not more, written publications of these personal histories. The third is, of course, the importance and uniqueness of the idea of the world's history as a collection of millions of personal stories and histories. This was too rich and important an idea for us to explore in such a short meeting!

Bia Barbarasso, Intervoces

Bia is a young Ashoka Fellow who is one of the leaders of the movement to reform media policy in Brazil. The premise of her work is the lack of diversity in the media in Brazil. We met her on our last day in Brazil when she was kind enough to come to the house where we were staying, and it was a great way to end the trip. She was one of the few people we met with a truly multi-pronged approach that combined grassroots action, networking and movement building, training and policy. If Video Volunteers were to work in Brazil in a much deeper way, we would want to work like this.

We contacted her because of an amazing victory she had which we read about on her Ashoka profile, and which we wanted to know more about. A few years ago, she brought a case against a major television station saying that their programming had consistently discriminated against gays and violated their human rights. The basis for the case was a law that says that, because TV licences are granted by the government and are public property, they must show content that is helpful for society. The court agreed with her and ordered the TV station to show human rights focused programming for 30 days in a row!

They were also ordered to pay a small -- way too small -- amount to assist in the creation of this programming. So Bia issued a call for programming to the documentary producers and media NGOs in Brazil, and received over 500 applications! This was one of her first contacts with the video-producing groups, and it deeply impressed her to see how huge the alternative media scene was. So much great content, and no spaces to share it!

She used the small sum of money for editing, and combined the different video submissions into hour-long programs on a particular theme for one evening's broadcast. She has since used the success of this project in her lobbying efforts, arguing with the government that Brazil has masses of quality content and the government must give them space to distribute these alternative views. This story fascinated Stalin and me as it was one of the only examples I've heard of people successfully using the law to create space on TV for alternative programming.

These are short descriptions of only two of the amazing media activists in Brazil. As I continue to work my way through all my notes, I'll try to keep writing up these short profiles.

November 09 2009


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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