Will Putting Rio’s Favelas on Google Maps Really Change Things?

And what that means for travellers to the city. | By NGT Staff  
Rio de Janeiro
Skyscrapers hug Rio de Janeiro’s coastline, but the city’s hillsides are draped with dense favelas. Photo: Janice Waltzer/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

Rio de Janeiro is gearing up to throw the party of the year. With only a few weeks to go before the Brazilian city hosts the Summer Olympics, the energy on the streets—and security in its airports—is off the charts. Rio, home to gorgeous beaches and the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, is also known for its favelas: colourful, lively working-class settlements so dense that they have never successfully been mapped. Until now.

Recently, Google and Microsoft have been combing Rio’s favelas, piecing together its higgledy-piggledy neighbourhoods with the help of locals. Both organisations stand to gain tremendously from the exercise: According to the Wall Street Journal, “more than 85 per cent of Rio’s roughly 1.5 million favela residents now have mobile phones, and more than half go online regularly.” But it also holds potential for travellers to the city.

To get the job done, Google has tied up with AfroReggae, a pioneering local NGO that encourages young locals to express themselves through music, dance, and theatre. Rio’s favelas are infamous for their criminal connections, but are also hotbeds of culture, especially music. At grungy underground favela concerts, the bass line is loud and the crowds even louder. Since 2014, AfroReggae and Google have put around 25 favelas—including Rocinha, Caju, and Vidigal—on the map.

Favelas, Rio

Favelas are named after a robust, resilient plant of the same name, found in many parts of Brazil. The neighbourhoods are a colourful hotchpotch of structures and cultures, home to small businesses and a thriving music and dance scene. Photos: dany13/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa) (favelas), courtesy Google (shop)

This isn’t Google’s first time mapping unchartered territories. While surveying the route to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, accessible only on foot, they used tripods and a digital camera. This time, Google employed favela residents to meticulously photograph and record locations of every shop, school, and bakery on their street, which they eventually pieced together to create a map. For streets with no name, which happened often enough, they took inspiration from popular local businesses. In 2014, Microsoft mapped two favelas: Vidigal and Maré, both available on Bing Maps.

The reputation of Rio’s favelas have been improving, thanks to the work of NGOs like AfroReggae and government initiatives like UPP—Pacifying Police Unit—that has brought more police surveillance to the area. Today, travellers can take guided tours of the favelas, catch performances of local genres like funk carioca, even stay in modest homestays. It is too soon to say how (or whether) mapping the favelas will improve the local scene, but it does make exploring slightly easier.

Here are a few glimpses of the music scene in Rio’s favelas:

Didn’t think a harmonica tune would have you doing the bum-and-grind? Think again.

Local kids get a lesson in percussion in this snippet from Favela Rising, a documentary about AfroReggae and their work in using music to uplift.

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