ICT Use in the Favelas of Rio

A quarter of Rio de Janeiro’s citizens live in favelas, pockets of humanity living outside of governmental infrastructure and resources. This lack of infrastructure means that favelas often struggle to maintain adequate roads, fresh water, sanitation, and electricity. But some of that has started to change, due mainly to efforts to clamp down on crime before the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. The city of Rio is realizing that it must invest resources into their forgotten slums, and one of the main ways they are doing this is through providing access to information communication technologies.

Previously, before any stable infrastructure was available, favela citizens would use rather ingenious methods for bringing Internet access into their neighborhoods. As rolling electrical blackouts were and are often still the norm, citizens would rig illegal taps into the electrical grid (called “gatos” or cats) to power their computers. David Nemer, a PhD candidate at Indiana University, spent eight months talking with citizens in various favelas around Rio, learning how they appropriate whatever they need to create some semblance of technological infrastructure in their communities. Many of these tech-savvy citizens are self taught. Often they run LAN houses, or informal Internet cafes, that serve as hubs in the neighborhoods where citizens can come and use the Internet or ask any tech questions they might have. This citizen-driven infrastructure is often uncertain, as David Nemer notes: “If we are to rethink infrastructure…we must consider what work goes into making it fit, and acknowledge the precarious and haphazard nature of this work and its fixes.”

But things have been changing, as the ramp up to the 2016 Summer Olympics continues. Brazil is pouring money into the favelas in part because they see the limits to police pacification in fixing the inherent, societal problems, and instead they are looking partly to technology to solve some of these issues. One reason this route was chosen is due in part to the recent and massive mobile phone usage in Rio (Brazil as a whole in 2015 has 282 million mobile phone users in a population of 200 million). One of the ways the city of Rio is trying to leverage this connectivity and teach broader digital literacy is through the Knowledge Ship initiative. The Knowledge Ships are “high tech community centers that aim to promote digital and democratic inclusivity by connecting local residents to the digital realm with free public access to the Internet.” So far there are about seven Knowledge Ships or Naves do Conhecimento in various low-income favela neighborhoods.

What is interesting to note though, and that PhD candidate Jeffrey Omari makes clear is that Rio’s attempts at digital inclusion are not doing much to mitigate the overall social exclusion of its citizens. In some ways, this relates to Kentaro Toyoma’s “Can Technology End Poverty?” and his criticism of governmentally created telecenters that do not take local context into account. Who is to say if the funding for these initiatives will continue post-Olympics? When comparing these Knowledge Ships to the LAN houses, the LAN houses might have more longevity due to their being rooted and run by the community. The problem is more of a systemic issue and putting up some futuristic buildings will not fix it alone.

However, there have been a few attempts at fixing the systemic issues. As pacification units move into the favelas, one of their directives is to report to the local government the need for public services, including “free viability wireless Internet”. While this is a slow going process, rife with mistrust and abuse, there can be some fruitful benefits. For example, the favela Dona Marta was “pacified” in 2008—making it one of the first favelas to be—and free wifi was brought to the neighborhood in 2011.

Despite the problems and issues with ICT infrastructure in the favelas, things are slowly starting to improve. Due to the city helping to create spaces and opportunities for digital development, as well as the socially constructed technical ingenuity of some of the residents of the various favelas, there is a growing space for ICT driven initiatives to provide better governance. This is where our work will fit in well.