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    It's Map or Be Mapped in Brazil's Favelas

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    Google Street View image, Rio favela  (via)

    Brazil's Mare shantytown has never really been on the map. The sprawling complex of slums, along with the rest of Rio de Janerio's favelas, has hung in a sort of "legal invisibility" since 1937, when a city ordinance ruled that however unsightly, favelas should be kept off maps because they were merely "temporary." Cutting between two of Rio's main highways, Mare is nowadays bottlenecked by young, armed thugs on motorcycles who sling drugs for any of the major narco gangs that rooted into the region in the '80s. There are hardly any street signs here. There are no official zip codes. No addresses. Just word of mouth.

    A group of current and former Mare residents are looking to change that, to map Mare, once and for all, with street signs, zip codes, and addresses. They're calling their nonprofit Redes de Maré.

    As the Associated Press reports, the team recently surveyed Mare's 16 favelas--which some 130,000 people call home--using identical methodology as that used by the Brazilian government's Institute of Geography and Statistics. This data, including "not only street names but the history of the original smaller favelas that make up the community," was then formatted into pocket guides and distributed gratis to residents. These guides also offer background on certain streets' namesakes, but leave some blank so that residents can fill them in as Mare, the nonprofit hopes, continues shifting out from the shadows of liminal space to a city with distinct identities. 

    The benefits could be wide ranging. "Decades of informality," the AP continues, meant that entire neighborhoods did not receive mail.

    It had also blocked people from giving required information on job applications, getting a bank account or telling the police or fire department where to go in an emergency call. Favela residents had to pick up their mail from their neighborhood associations, and entire slums housing a small town's worth of residents had to use the zip code of the closest officially recognized street.

    So now, with more and more home addresses and blue-and-white ceramic street signs popping up amid a growing effort to chart Mare's routes and alley ways--some of which are so cramped and winding that exposed light bulbs burn even during daylight hours--residents of Rio's famed favelas are undergoing their first real and "fundamental step toward citizenship." This, in turn, could very well do away with the stigmas and sense of abandonment that over time have built up walls between Rio's shantytowns and its formal, mapped neighborhoods. 

    Another Google Street view of favela milieu  (via)

    That said, some argue that it's incorrect to view maps as only a bunch of data "culled and presented objectively." Jason Farman, a professor at University of Maryland who studies mapping and digital media, says maps also represent not just the perspective of the cartographer herself, but of much larger institutions--of corporations, organizations, and governments.

    "For a community to be left off of the map is the equivalent of saying that the community doesn't matter," Farman told the AP. "It removes a vital part of their identity."

    That identity is crystallizing, though it's been a long time coming--and not without butting heads with Google. O Globo, Rio's largest newspaper, reported last year on the frustrations of some cariocas with how the search giant went about mapping Rio's favelas. Critics accused Google Maps of grossly exaggerating the sprawl of the slums, effectively turning the city into one muddled "agglomeration of shantytowns."  While long-established residential districts were given short cartographic shrift, critics said, places like Mare were given "undue prominence."

    "The maps turn Rio into a favela," one Humaita resident told O Globo. "Anyone who doesn't know the city would be frightened."

    Antonio Pedro Figueira de Mello, the city's tourism secretary, was likewise miffed. Mello dismissed the maps as "absurd," and called on Google to modify them. He even claimed that Google had rebuffed an earlier request to change the maps, to which Felix Ximenes, Google's regional representative, responded that the company didn't intend to defame Rio. 

    "The problem is a lack of discretion in the way the information has been posted on the map," explained Ximenes, who added that Google had purchased the data but went on to use it without it being properly prioritized. He said Google would denote tourist sites, points of interest and other overlooked or forgotten districts. Perhaps most critically, Ximenes pledged that Google would tweak the site's design, namely its text size and district labelling, to show favela names only after users zoomed in on those areas. 

    Which is to say, come the likely crush of Google Streetview traffic over next year's World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympic games, both of which take place in Rio, bumbling tourists will know exactly which areas and streets to not stray toward, no matter how many street signs and addresses Redes de Mare manages to place.   

    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson