The lives of the people who make Rio de Janeiro their home have been overshadowed by the relentless tales of a very troubled Olympics. But none have been marginalized more than the 1.5 million people who live in Rio’s favelas. A project funded by Google to map these informal settlements provides some important counter-programming as the world’s attention turns towards the sprawling city.
Since 2015, Google’s been working to put Rio’s favelas on the map—literally, to get the streets and businesses of 700-plus neighborhoods onto Google Maps, which up until a few years ago were cartographic holes on the internet.
So far, Google has mapped about 26 favelas, which has not been an easy proposition. The topographical challenges of unpaved pathways and narrow stairways meant outfitting locals with spherical cameras on backpacks to trek the streets. In some cases, locals couldn’t agree on what those streets were even called, so Google collaborated directly with local residents to christen these places with proper names and addresses.
"Beyond the Map: Rio" is a video collaboration between Google’s Art and Culture project and Epic Magazine that chronicles the process, and the stories uncovered along the way. The production value is excellent and some of the visuals are quite remarkable—it turns out a motorcycle tour in 360-degree video is the perfect way to experience Brazil’s crowded streets.
Yes, it’s an ad for Google’s mapping efforts, but it’s refreshing to see honest portrayals of street life without the global insistence that the city is doomed because it’s hosting the Olympics.
The vignettes (you can watch them as part of the immersive experience, or separately here) aim to capture the diversity of city life, but there is some of that voyeuristic nature which seems to pervade all documentation of favelas. One of the videos even has a requisite appearance from an actor from City of God, the film which has been criticized for fetishizing favela life. Thanks in large part to that movie, tourists now flock to Rio’s favelas, adding homes that are disconnected from basic infrastructure to their travel itineraries. As one favela resident puts it, "It’s as if we don’t exist."
In one of the videos, Google says mapping the neighborhoods can fix that kind of social equality—it’s helping to give local residents a sense of identity. But it’s the latest entry in a complicated narrative about all informal settlements, which are found in cities everywhere. There are many efforts to connect these communities to better civic infrastructure can improve daily life, including things that Google can really help with, like providing better mobile phone coverage and internet access.
But those connections often come at a cost to residents. The introduction of all this technology now allows Google to gather personal data and dispatch location-specific advertising to nearby residents, for example. And, of course, people walking around wearing cameras create ongoing privacy concerns.
Is the trade-off worth it? In this case, probably. Accurate maps, something most of the world takes for granted, can help empower residents and boost economic activity—about 10,000 local businesses now have listings. But there's something about maps, and Street View specifically, that lets you peer onto these colorful streets which are so often in the headlines and envision regular people going about their everyday lives. Perhaps the greatest value of Google’s work is that it may help create a better understanding of these local communities which can educate outsiders long after the Olympics have left town.