URBELatam, a partnership of three universities, is working with the Preventório Community Bank to map the Morro do Preventório community near Rio de Janeiro. This will enable the bank to expand its services to the community and serve as a model and inspiration for other favela communities.
We’re three women who met for one purpose: to map Morro do Preventório, one of the favelas in the city of Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
This task arose from a demand of the URBELatam project, an initiative of three higher education institutions: the University of Glasgow in Scotland, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and the University of Antioquia in Colombia. A multidisciplinary research team has come together to produce data in cooperation with favela residents for disaster risk reduction, planning, and local development.
URBELatam is supported by the Preventório Community Bank, a community association operating in Morro do Preventório since 2011. Today, it supports not only Morro do Preventório but also the surrounding communities, providing services to more than 20 thousand people. Its major objective is to promote local development through financial services, such as microcredit, banking, and counseling for local enterprises.
The Need for Favela Mapping
The need to map the community stems from the lack of official data on the territory. The specific problem initially presented to us by João Porto de Albuquerque, the principal investigator of URBELatam, was the fact that Morro do Preventório was poorly mapped on OpenStreetMap. One of the many challenges of our project was, and still is, to build dialogue between people who produce maps from within living communities with people who produce maps remotely.
There’s an effort to have these regions literally erased from highly accessible maps. In Brazil, these gaps are relatively common, as official institutions often consider favelas “unsafe”, using this as an excuse for not delivering essential services and data generation. Comparing the favelas to other areas of the city, we observe they aren’t portrayed in an accurate way in research and map visualization service platforms, which causes a certain strangeness. This exclusion makes the community look like it’s not part of where it belongs.
We saw this happen in 2013, before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, when the city government of Rio de Janeiro asked Google to remove the word “favela” from their maps. This move to rename the favelas creates the feeling that these areas contain nothing of interest, even in favelas where the population exceeds 100,000 residents.
Paulinho Otaviano, a resident and local guide in Santa Marta, said “For me, the fact of not being on the map, creates a sense of exclusion, that we are not part of the city, that we are not part of the traditional script,” in an interview with Todo Mapa Tem Um Discurso (Every Map Has a Discourse).
One of the authors, Alessandra Figueiredo (top right), with a teammate (top left) and a resident of the community (middle)
Considering their high population density, it is extremely important to map these invisible areas. A faithful map provides accurate data for services and makes us be recognized for what we are: a relevant territory for our city, not only economically but also socially.
To better understand the community, we field mapped it in OpenStreetMap (OSM). With months of fieldwork, we put more than 4,000 houses from the favela on the map.
Over the course of eight months, we mapped the entire territory of Morro do Preventório. We generated data on streets, alleys, businesses, public buildings, houses, etc. through extensive fieldwork between researchers and residents.
The mapping brings benefits to the residents themselves, as we and the Preventório Community Bank can use it to identify the needs, absences, and strengths of the community. From the data generated, it is possible to have a complete understanding of the services provided and the community’s undertakings. In this way, the Bank is able to analyze in greater depth the potential for new social services and also develop initiatives to promote the local economy like expanding its microcredit programs.
One such project was the mapping of local artists. Many artists from the favelas do not have funding to continue their work. The Bank, with its microcredit program, financially helps them, offering loans at lower interest rates than traditional banks. A direct impact of this was seen in December 2021 when a festival was held only with artists from Morro do Preventório, an event that was only possible thanks to cultural mapping.
Screenshot of Morro do Preventório in OpenStreetMap. ©OpenStreetMap contributors.
Starting this work from scratch, without any previous data, was a challenge.
While we were learning to work with the HOT Tasking Manager and OSM, we created a more artisanal way of mapping, using the HOT subdivisions as a basis. From the imagery and residents’ prior knowledge, it was possible to catalogue the different types of buildings by walking through the community or even through the memory of local mapmakers.
Another very important platform for our work was KOBO Collect, a tool made to help work in the field, where you can assemble forms with the data you want to collect and then answer them offline and on your cell phone. It helped us a lot in collecting physical vulnerability data.
On this journey, we encountered several challenges, including identifying leisure areas. These areas are usually recognized for their clear, defined roles. However, in more peripheral areas, it’s normal to use public spaces without an established purpose: for example, a vacant lot can be used for several recreational reasons, such as a gathering place for children to play, a practice area for sports, a venue for community parties, etc.
From the challenge of applying our work arose the need to set up a community mapping workshop to pass on the knowledge acquired during our journey.
The request came from the ‘Marielle Franco’ Favela Dictionary project, which uses Wikipedia as a technology to preserve the knowledge of the Favelas. The similarities between mapping and writing an entry — for example, the use of open-source digital technologies — led to an invitation to teach the workshop, to be held in three meetings of two hours each.
The first barrier we encountered after deciding to participate was how to self-validate our work. There was uncertainty about the experimental method we used, so the formalization of implied and organized knowledge emerged as a complication for the group. The opportunity to set up the course for an interested audience was the validation we needed.
The decision to do the workshop represented our wish to share the knowledge we had already accumulated so far. We started mapping without much confidence. Over time, we discovered all the potential that community mapping arouses, so there’s nothing fairer than sharing it with other people — groups, just like us, that do community work in other favelas.
From there, the challenge became translating what we were doing in a simple and didactic way, one less rigid and academic and more accessible. We wanted something anyone could understand. After all, when the language isn’t inclusive and comprehensible, it turns out to be segregating and discouraging for the people involved, making the process of becoming mappers more distant and difficult.
There, we shared our knowledge and our drives and, amid this exchange, we ended up discovering new motivations and new goals. This generated the desire that the seed we planted in other community agents grows and flourishes, making each favela in Rio de Janeiro come alive through maps made by its own residents.
The authors from left to right: Alessandra Figueiredo, Elena Veríssimo and Samara Franco