How one startup mapped Brazil's confusing favelas
The Friendly Mailman is a clever solution to a uniquely Brazilian problem.
Photo: Matias Maxx
I am with Carlos Pedro, on a dirt road one kilometer up the Gavea Road in Vila Verde, Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil. Alongside us, a dirty stream of sewage and precarious stairs lead to all three sides. Above the stream there is a two-story brick house, suspended on concrete piers. "It won't fall," Pedro assures me.
"Most of Rocinha's founders were construction workers from the northeast," Pedro says. "Each slum has a different feature and Rocinha is known for the quality of its buildings. But tell me something: Where are we? What's the name of this street? Is it a street? Our map will answer all these questions."
Pedro is a former amateur bodysurf champion born and raised in Rocinha. In 2000, along with his friends Eliane Ramos and Silas Viera, Pedro got a job with the Census bureau. It was a frustrating gig, because in this community of over 60,000 people almost nobody could explain where they lived. In other words, nobody had an address.
This is a typical problem in countless Brazilian slums. The government is not required by law to create streets for buildings with untitled land tenure, and the Post Office is not required to deliver mail to homes without a legal address.
Without an address, it is very hard to get letters. This causes a series of problems. Potential solutions to the problem included keeping mail at the community centers, or at some street business. But this would never work very well—imagine getting the notice that your son was accepted at some school too late to be able to take the opportunity. Think about wanting to buy something on the internet, or waiting for a new credit card to arrive, and not knowing how anything would ever get to you.
Pedro, Ramos, and Viera decided to take matters into their own hands, and make some money in the process. The first step was to make a map of the community and create virtual addresses that they could use to create a company to deliver the Post Office mail.
The task was much more complex than they had thought. If you typed 'Rocinha' in Google Maps a few months ago, you would only get the Gavea Road when, in fact, there are hundreds of streets, alleys, back-alleys, and stairs throughout the community.
One of the problems for mapping a slum via satellite is that many buildings create tunnels over the alleys and stairs below. Another problem is that sometimes the concrete slabs used for roofs are used as streets.
They gave up on the idea of a visual map and started a logic map by generating algorithms. Algorithms are a set of instructions for specific operations; a good example of a simple algorithm is a recipe for lasagna.
The algorithms created by Pedro and his partners are way more complicated than a lasagna recipe, of course. Without a visual image, they created a pseudo-code, an informal language of categories to explain each fixed structure, natural or built, which is on each street, stairs, or alley inside the huge Rocinha community. For example, a "condominium" is defined as a blind alley with less than 12 homes.
As there are no official names for most of the streets in Rocinha, the residents make them up. A street usually has at least two to three names. The streets do not start in an arbitrary way; depending on who you are speaking with, a street can begin on the upper side of the slum and come down, or vice versa, or even somewhere in the middle. Pedro and his friends had to create a virtual beginning and end for each street.
The end result is an algorithm for each street, stairs, or alley. Together, these hundreds of handwritten pages turned into a huge map, chock full of lines and codes, impossible for anyone without understanding of its logic to decipher.
A typical sequence goes like this: Wall, stone, henhouse, STORE, house, building, condominium.
A typical sequence goes like this: "Wall, stone, henhouse, store, house, building, condominium," Pedro explains. Each one of these concepts has the same specific definition that makes their work easier. "Rocinha is constantly under construction," he adds. "It is possible that a month from now a henhouse is gone and there is a house there instead. For this reason we need to register everything; it's easier to make changes when we need to."
When they finished the map, they patented it, and after this, they created a service to deliver Post Office mail called Friendly Mailman. It was a success, and also the first franchise in Brazil's history born in a slum. Currently, Friendly Mailman acts in eight slums in Rio.
Each residence using the service pays a monthly fee—currently R$16 in Rocinha, or $6.64 USD. Their houses get an address, a number based on the order the service was hired. Every day the Post Office van stops by the Friendly Mailman office and leaves all mail for the community. The employees sort out those for their thousands of customers. Later, the Post Office van stops by to get whatever was left and then they park on top of the hill and allow people to look in the boxes to check if they have any mail.
Back on the trail at the Vila Verde community, we snake through a hole in the middle of two buildings and up a long stairway.
"What is this?" Pedro asks. "Is it a street? Where does it start?" He shows the page on the map that refers to this part of the stairway. "Look at this. Is it a building or a house? And this here, is it a street or a condominium? The map tells you all."
Pedro indicates the doors on the houses. "This one here is a customer of the Friendly Mailman," he says, pointing to a sticker with the Friendly Mailman's logo and the number 1166.
"You'll notice that the numbers do not appear in order," he goes on. "Look at this house here: 8044. This is because they get their addresses according to the date when they hire the service. No one can locate these houses without our map. And no one will understand the map unless we explain how to use it."
Pedro explained the map in a general way, but there are certain elements that are secret. It also changes every day.
"Each time one of our mailmen go on duty, he will update it," he explains. "It could be that there was a wall the week before, and now something else is being built. We have made our map digital and we want to create an app so that our mailmen can do the updating in their smart phones."
No one will understand the map unless we explain how to use it.
"Are there problems with drug trafficking?" I asked.
"None," he said. "Do you think the drug lords don't want to get their mail? Do you think they don't want to buy tennis shoes over the internet? Everybody likes it. After the Friendly Mailman, sales bursted all over in Rocinha. And as you can see, there is a lot of money in this community, a lot of trade, most people living here are middle class. This is a characteristic of Rocinha. If you go to the Juramento hill, for instance, you won't see trade. It's a poorer community, and for that reason we charge less over there. If you look over the world, it is full of slums, and everybody needs mail service. So we are making money, which is good, but also supplying a service for the betterment of the community."
We went back to the Friendly Mailman's headquarters for coffee. There is a large traditional map on the wall, showing all the alleys in the community. "Look at this," Pedro says. "We made this based on all our mapping. Google came by here last month. They asked if they could take a photo of our map. I said: 'No way.' Let them do their own."