Bing’s collaborative Na Área project helps visitors discover more of Brazil’s favelas – and gives locals a digital boost

As visitors from around the world descend on Brazil for the world’s premier soccer tournament, they will be able to find more tourist attractions, landmarks, hotels and other points of interest, thanks to Bing’s Na Área, a project to bring communities in that country’s favelas together.

Starting with pilot programs in the Vidigal, Complexo de Maré and Manguinhos favelas – informal settlements that combined are home to 200,000 people – previously unavailable search results such as restaurants and trendy hot spots are already showing up on in the form of local listings on searches, Bing Maps, Bing Mobile and Windows Smart Search. But just as important, the project involves great participation from the favelas’ residents, who are also able to share their culture through photo galleries.

The favelas are often very close to major metropolitan areas, yet they may as well be invisible to people from outside the area because their points of interest aren’t indexed by search engines. Bing has been able to work with non-governmental organizations as well as those from the public and private sectors to identify key spots within the communities – and include residents in the process. A major partner is IPP (Instituto Pereira Passos), linked to the Rio de Janeiro’s Civil House, which provided the maps and field data.

The tool developed by the Institute allows the residents of these communities to collaborate using a smartphone, tablet or any device with a GPS. Residents can take a photo of a particular location, send it over the Internet and add relevant information about it.

According to Eduarda La Rocque, president of IPP, “The project is important because it represents another step that IPP is taking to put these communities on the map – the official map – to help integrate them to the rest of the city, and value their places of interest. It is also important to emphasize that, in this partnership, we are employing resources from the private sector to foster public policies, a model that has been successfully accomplished with other IPP partners. We plan to extend the mapping to all drug traffic-free communities, and this is a great gift for the city, which is about to celebrate the 450th anniversary of its foundation.”

People who call favelas home make up six percent of Brazil’s nearly 200 million residents. There are thousands of these communities in the country. Until the release of “Na Área,” there were few places of interest indexed in the communities located in the hills, slums and suburbs of Rio. For example, less than one percent of the places in Complexo da Maré showed up in search results, according Bing’s data.

“The ones chosen were recommended by the IPP given their diversity – Vidigal, because of its touristic potential; Maré because of its size; and Manguinhos because the community had already self-organized to produce maps and was eager to enter in this partnership with the Government and us,” says Lúcio Tinoco, Bing’s Engineering Director and head of a team of 20 engineers based in Rio, who are working together with Bing’s global team.

But the people who live in the favelas aren’t digital outcasts – they’re equipped with the same devices that connect others around the world with what’s happening online. In the last decade, 65 percent of the population saw an increase their income, with an average monthly wages of $910.00, which moved them into the middle class. Nearly 50 percent of homes have a plasma or LCD TV, microwave and computer (of those, 31 percent have Internet access).

The biggest common denominator for communication is the mobile phone, which 89 percent of the community has – and among them, 22 percent have smartphones.

Local inhabitants have contributed to the search results, such as the partnership with with Nós do Morro in Complexo de Maré, which worked with young people to teach them photography on Lumia phones, so they could capture the parts of their neighborhoods that matter to them.

“The project addresses the need people have to feel as a part of the city they live in, to identify themselves as being part of the wider community,” says André Koller, a resident and the founder of a company that produces a street guide of Vidigal. His role in the project is to collect all relevant data in the Vidigal. “It also gives their enterprises visibility and makes them easier to locate. This can have a positive socio-economic effect on their lives and make people outside the favela perceive it as a normal neighborhood.”

The project hopes to make visible venues such as churches, hotels, restaurants, car body shops, grocery stores and pharmacies. Tinoco says these communities are “very alive” and “very safe” – especially for foreign visitors. In 2011, he says, there were 3,600 points of business in one favela, but none of them were easy to find through search engines. But now, as a result of the project, you can search for a business such as “Casa Alto Vidigal” or “Laje Tia Lea no Vidigal” and find it on Bing.

“Local search is particularly important to mobile users and the six million mobile Internet users in Brazil´s middle class are essentially not included by any search engines,” says Tinoco. “It´s an opportunity for us to develop not just something useful to our new customers but also to set ourselves apart from the competition with a very positive, viral social message.”

By being listed in online information search services, local shop owners can benefit from a digital platform that can help bring them more business. Microsoft is committed to extending the project to other 40 communities by the end of the year.

“More than collecting information, we are interpreting the users’ needs to help them make the right decision at the right time,” says Tinoco.