Favelas & the New Digital Class

Innovative thinking on the ground is changing the way residents in poor neighborhoods get information from the cloud

Maria lives in the inner-blocks of a favela called Heliopolis, in Sao Paulo. Like many 10-year olds, she likes to run around and hang out with her friends. The difference is that Maria carries five SIM cards around in her pocket, something that might seem unusual to many of us. But in this favela, as in many others in Brazil, this is the norm. Why? Well, each SIM card represents a unique cell phone carrier, which she switches out, depending on the friend she is trying to reach. This bizarre service makes it possible for Maria to call her friends who are connected to the same carrier, for free—a common practice to cell phone providers throughout Brazil.

Maria’s adaptive behavior is representative of the informal and often paradoxical nature of working in informal settlements or favelas.  As we discussed in our last blog post, when you dig a little deeper, you discover the innovative thinking and richness behind what, at first, seems to be counterintuitive ideas.

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Maria Playing

During the holidays, in schools all over the world the walls are lined with drawings of wish lists from Santa. In Heliopolis, these drawings are of one single object, the smartphone—the most desirable present throughout the favela. They don’t dream of food, better homes, education, etc.; they dream of phones. Most people in the favela have only a basic feature phone and it doesn’t come with the kind of access to education, information, and services people value. So, many buy a smartphone even if they can’t afford a data plan to go with it. These aspirations generate a rising call from within favelas for the same level of services and information that the developed areas of the world have access to.

There is a growing virtual class in Brazil, with greater and greater access to computers and Internet through Internet cafes and home computers. This increased access is closing the gap between rich and poor, the lower and middle classes. Now it’s possible for more and more people to learn, absorb, and disseminate information, as well as connect with others. Facebook, Orkut, and other social media services have become popular over the last few years throughout Brazil. These services act as storytelling spaces and social levellers. They encourage participants to connect with others outside the silos of their everyday life.

Christmas wish list

We were told the story of the young man José who has made himself a plan outlining how he would become an IT professional over the span of his life. He intends to teach himself everything he needs to know to achieve this dream. This drive within informal settlements to achieve more than what’s within their means, combined with an increase in access to information is a powerful force for social mobility.

Still, there is very little technology within the favela—only a few people have home computers and even fewer have reliable Internet access. Through our program, Mark, we are building services that can act as social levellers but still remain accessible and relevant to the favela. We don’t believe in the knee jerk reaction that sets out to give favela dwellers the technology they need. That approach is unsustainable; we cannot hand out expensive gadgets and gizmos in the hopes that the slums will miraculously improve.

While the rise in smartphones is apparent in Brazil, the only universally accessible devices are basic SMS or feature phones. With Mark, a language-based mapping service, we highlight social issues and transactions of everyday interest. In order to build this service without dependence on new technology we turned to the existing technology and options–SMS.

Maps have the power to make the invisible visible. This tool is sorely lacking within the slum communities.

Seeing the value of SMS when applied to everyday transactions in the favela, we challenged ourselves to build something akin to Google Maps, Foursquare or Yelp. We’re developing techniques that utilize language-based mapping to help guide people around the favela and to enable them to map their space. The favelas are about repurposing, reconfiguring, and innovating with very little, as you read in the story of Maria. We hope to emulate and build upon this existing culture and create a service, which is not only relevant and useful, but accessible and affordable too.


Meagan Durlak is a recovering graphic designer. After spending the last five years working with a handful of great clients, (such as the Ontario Ministry of Health, Canadian Film Centre, Journalists for Human Rights, MaRS Discovery District, Makeshift Magazine and the Royal Ontario Museum) she has come to realize that she wants to pursue design in a new way. In hopes of making life a little more interesting, and exploring this new dimension of design as an approach, not just an end-goal, she is currently pursuing an MFA in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons the New School for Design.

James Frankis uses his personal lens of science and coding to bring logical analysis to the design practice. His experience in coding, science and data visualization have taught him an appreciation for attention to detail and complex but elegant solutions. These skills help to maintain complexity, define narrative arguments, ground projects, and hone details. Through an MFA in Transdisciplinary Design, James is currently focused on empowering people through informal and self-directed learning.

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