Google Maps is adding often-invisible favelas to their cartography of Rio ahead of the Olympics

Cartography of discrimination.
Cartography of discrimination.
Image: Reuters/Sergio Moraes
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In preparation for the 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro bulldozed favelas, or blocked them out of view. Those same communities often appeared as blank spots on Google Maps. Now Google is putting the city’s working class communities back on the map, as billions of people around the world zoom in on Brazil.

The Silicon Valley company just launched a virtual tour of Rio’s favelas, showing them in 360-degree video.

That’s on top of efforts to chart favelas on Google Maps in collaboration with local nonprofit AfroReggae, in a project called Tá No Mapa, or “it’s on the map.” Around a quarter of the city’s 6.3 million (Portuguese) residents are favela dwellers.

Not long ago, favelas’ packed alleys appeared as expanses of gray on Google Maps, an omission that locals and their advocates complained about. Now 26 favelas, and 10,000 businesses within them, are mapped, according to Google. Not able to send in cars through the neighborhoods’ narrow and winding paths, Google also collects “street views” by arming locals with high-tech recording back-packs called Trekkers.

Below, the before and after view of Rocinha, one of Rio’s biggest favelas.


Google and Tá No Mapa still have a long way to go. There’s more than 1,000 favelas in the city.

The campaign offers PR for both favela residents and YouTube’s 360-degree video, but it’s also providing a universal point of reference for communities that often go overlooked. Many favela residents don’t hold official titles to their homes, says Ronan Ramos, Tá No Mapa’s coordinator. Others don’t have street addresses.

“This project aims to break down down this wall between favelas and the rest of the city,” adds Ramos. A secondary goal is to drive new customers to the many local businesses. But having the ability to use Google Maps to navigate from Olympic venues to shops or restaurants in Rocinha, doesn’t mean visitors will.

Despite Google’s bright portrayal of favelas, the communities still have to overcome the perception that they are crime-ridden places. The US State Department bars government employees from going to “unpacified” favelas, which haven’t been subject to the government’s intensive local policing. “Even pacified favelas can be unpredictable and dangerous,” it warns. Rio visitors who enter them could put themselves at risk, it adds.