Google hopes to map Rio's tangled and sprawling favelas in time for the Olympics

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American tech giant Google wants to map out Rio de Janeiro’s infamously tangled and sprawling favelas just in time for the Olympic Games.

Since 2014, Google Maps has been working with a local Brazilian NGO known as AfroReggae to train 100 favela residents on digital cartography. The Cariocas, as Rio residents are popularly known, have been walking around with cameras, smartphones and Google equipment tagging streets, corners, landmarks, and just about everything inside the web of favelas.

The project, known as Tá no Mapa  (On the Map), hopes to challenge the idea that the favelas are impenetrable nests of crime, poverty and violence, while highlighting the thriving creative culture inside these communities.


So far, Google has mapped 26 favelas, and has tagged more than 3,000 businesses for locals and tourists to check out.

“Security, language and understanding were all challenges and factors in this project,” Google spokesman Jesus García told Fusion. “That’s why we worked with the NGO to train favela residents in each community to conduct the mapping of their favela and they worked with us to ensure accuracy and integrity of the mapping.”


García says one of out every five people in Rio live in favelas, and although the sprawling neighborhoods are often associated with organized crime and violence, they are communities that are bustling with art, music and entrepreneurship.

“By mapping them we hope to help incorporate them into society and help locals and tourists alike discover that there's more than meets the eye in the favelas,” he said. “Some of the most emblematic favelas in Rio have been tourist attractions for many years.”


Garcia adds, "Our mapping isn’t specifically aimed at tourists. It sets out to ensure all areas of Rio are accessible on Google Maps for anyone, regardless of the socioeconomic status of those neighborhoods.”

Including the favelas in Google Maps could encourage people to explore the hillside neighborhoods without fear of getting lost and never finding their way out again. But it might take more than just a reliable map to encourage folks to wander too deep inside. Crime and state repression are major issues in the favelas. Many of the neighborhoods have essentially been militarized as part of an operation to “pacify” areas that were controlled by drug-trafficking gangs.


Hit movies such as City of God and Elite Squad have also immortalized favelas as war zones.


But interest in the favelas has grown among the country’s middle and upper classes, as well as foreign tourists who want a taste of the “real” Brazil; there are now multiple tour operators who offer daily "favela adventure tours" that leave from downtown Rio for a brief venture up in the forbidden hillside.

In spite of the political and economic turmoil Brazil faces, García says Google is committed to many projects in the country.


“Early next year we plan to open a YouTube Space in Rio de Janeiro, which will make Brazil the only other country in the world besides the United States with more than one YouTube Space. We're also investing in three deep-sea fiber-optic cables in Brazil that will bolster the country's Internet and data-transmission capacity. All this in addition to other investments and product improvements such as a complete Google Maps refresh of Rio, including real-time transit, a Street View collection of Olympic Venues and over 200 restaurants, bars and hotels in time for the Olympic Games.”