How can you provide social services or start a new business when your city doesn't even show up on a map? That's the reality for millions of Brazilians living in favelas, or shantytowns, in Rio de Janeiro: Less than 1 percent of these densely populated urban areas have been mapped, according to Microsoft search engine Bing.
But the Google competitor hopes it can put Rio's favelas on the map, embarking on a long-term project to bring its computational power and mapping infrastructure to the city set to host this year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Bing announced its new initiative during February's Global Innovation Summit in San Jose, Calif.
Is seeing their homes on a Bing map really a top priority of favela residents, or are they more concerned with meeting their daily needs and obtaining access to electricity and clean water?
This was a question posed by a reporter during an interview with Bing's Senior Director Stefan Weitz on Bloomberg Television's Bloomberg West, and reflects the developed world's naiveté regarding the real needs and concerns of developing countries and how technologically advanced these nations actually are.
Calling favelas shantytowns or slums is a misnomer, Weitz said. While favelas previously earned a reputation as dangerous, impoverished communities, recent government programs have reduced crime and increased services in the areas.
Eighty percent of those who live in these favelas in Rio, for example, are middle class, Weitz said. These are actually places that have 1 percent GDP in Brazil and have a tremendous penetration of mobile devices today.
In fact, Weitz said, 90 percent of favela residents under 30 have Internet access on their mobile devices; access to computers and the Internet is not an issue. In many cases, many favelas residents will not have electricity in their homes, but will have a cell phone.
How exactly will Bing's mapping efforts empower favela residents? Once Bing develops the mapping infrastructure, Brazilian entrepreneurs can build on top of that, Weitz said, using the map to attract new customers to an existing business or starting a company that incorporates the mapping platform.
For example, Weitz went on to say, Nigerians use Facebook as a commerce platform, not simply as a social media tool, where they find jobs and make payments to local businesses.
Part of this is building a scaffolding, a "skeleton" if you will, so people can actually build applications and services that make sense for those populations in these places, he said.
Weitz recognized that the company's mapping project is just the technical piece of the overall solution to empowering people in favelas; nongovernmental organizations, government and entrepreneurs have been working on the ground in these communities for years.
But Bing's efforts may bring more rewards than simply economic ones.
"To see tinkle in [a resident's] eye when they can see their actual street or their address or their school show up on the Internet, on the devices they're using, that actually has dramatic social and psychological effects on these people," Weitz said.
Image credit: Flickr/Rob
Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru
Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.