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Amid gang warfare, Berkeley students venture into Brazilian slums for United Nations study on the digital divide

 Joyojeet Pal
Joyojeet Pal in Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – I'm part of a group of UC Berkeley PhD students – two economists, a computer scientist, and myself, an urban planner – who visited Brazil this summer. We went into the urban slums (favelas) to research the impact of computing initiatives aimed at overcoming the digital divide. Our report, which we'll complete by November for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, will include an analysis of the economic and social benefits as well as the downside of investing in computers for use in low-income neighborhoods.

Before arriving in Brazil, I had been warned about the favelas. I had been told that these areas were guarded by machine guns and that unauthorized people have little access into them. Mostly located on little hills in the city, favelas have rather obvious informal boundaries. My friends from Brazil had never once entered a favela.

Coming from Bombay, for me this was somewhat unexpected. We walk in and out of slums all the time, partly because many "cottage industries" are located in slums. But the slums here suffer an uncanny economic seclusion – all the shops and businesses inside the favelas are frequented only by people who live in the area, making each community somewhat of a standalone ecosystem. You and all your friends could live your whole life without ever entering a slum, and never miss a thing. I was told never to walk on the streets at night near favelas, not to take pictures, to wear inexpensive-looking shoes, and as a foreigner, I was told not to try and get any research work in the favelas done myself. I took a lot of this with some salt – some rich kid's fearful fantasy, perhaps.

I soon found that yes – you are watched if you enter a favela and, it is practically impossible to do any research in a favela without the approval of the community, which is itself a rather fluid entity. This may mean something as simple as having an individual from the community accompany you, or as complicated as needing approval from specific individuals (often mafia), who may be centers of influence in the community.

At times as we did our research at small computer centers in the favelas, we would travel for a good 10 miles through a succession of areas, often divided by gang colors. Territorial battles can be bloody, and are fought with very sophisticated weapons. We would be escorted in and out of the computer centers, finding sometimes hordes of children hungry for a stab at Yahoo, but more regularly, two bored employees staring at vacant chairs and dusty monitors.

One of the computer centers we worked at had been raided by a gang from a rival community a few days previously, an attack that left one youth dead, and the computer center unusable for weeks. At another computer center, our surveyor found the need to evacuate quickly because he landed at the location in the middle of a gunfight. Once, midway through interviews with some computer center employees at a center in Rio, we heard fireworks. At first, I guessed it may have been because of the Brazil-Argentina match the night before. I later learned that the fireworks were signals by the gangs that either there were police around or that a rival gang had attacked.

It is never okay to take a photograph in a favela unless you know exactly what you are doing. The drug trafficking business here is very serious. Ganglords fear information on 'home terrain' leaking, such as the identification of strategic points, or of surveillance people. Many of the favela "invasions" (related to drug terrain wars) happen on flash raids by rival gangs that need to get in and out quickly. Once, I wanted a photo of the police helicopters. I took the picture, but the instant I turned my camera towards the neighborhood which set off the firecrackers, I was loudly alerted to put my camera away; actually, I think it was an order, and I obeyed it without question.

Most people believe that police presence may increase violence in the favelas rather than control it. The police here have a "take few hostages" policy when it comes to dealing with the gangs within favelas. At a favela computer center in Sao Paulo, the coordinator told us that local gangs kept her informed of the exact dates on which there would be armed turf fights, and the areas which should be avoided on those days. Eighty youth are "executed" weekly as a result of the drug trade, and that's just in East Sao Paulo.

During this trip, we've seen statistics that would prove unerringly to any rational venture capitalist that most of the favela computer centers are quicksand for investment. And yet, every day we met children who lived their short lives without anchor, and if it weren't for some nongovernmental agency spending money on slum computers, they would probably never know the useless pleasures of surfing the Internet, getting on Chat, or enjoying online pornography.

As a unique breed of free-floating researchers, I felt like we retained a Teflon coating similar to that I imagine is worn by a newspaper reporter. We are trained to be as neutral as is possible, and walk away from the situation with an assessment that is rational and applicable to economic and social indicators. Our job is to do this analysis as per generally accepted industry standards, and we will.

But we may never know the value of access to a computer to the three people in the slum who have learned to use it, and are on the Internet now, six hours a day. We can however tell if their usage of the Internet generates income for them, or for the community. We can tell for certain, that someone is paying a lot of money for that Internet access, and that access essentially benefits three people in a community of 3000. If the amount payable towards the computers were diverted within the next quarter (after that, we'd need a new assessment), the hunger of 13 people could be reduced by 70 percent. That much we know.

I do not have a friend, brother or even a business interest in the favelas – I can never really feel that my own well-being is affected by what happens in the slum communities. I can walk away from this situation anytime and have it be a memory. Perhaps I will be congratulated for this work. But is this research really better for being neutral?

After weeks of going from one telecenter and computing training school to another, it is clear to me that something substantive is being done here, something expensive, that cannot be entirely quantified in dollars and cents. To me, the succor from the digital divide is very difficult to measure. Asking a group of Berkeley PhD students to assess this is to akin to judging the value of shade on a sizzling hot beach.

After we Berkeley PhD students leave, our report will be published on the Internet. Funding agencies will read it, and perhaps cut off funds to certain organizations. Somewhere, a decision will be made that food is more important than Google, and somewhere a plug will be pulled.

We leave Brazil hoping our research here will have an overall benefit. But who is to define what overall really is, or for that matter who gets trampled upon in the interest of the larger picture. Or, like all academics, we may have greatly overestimated our worth, and our report will reach 10 dispassionate readers on the United Nations Industrial Development Organization website. That being the likely case, our report should include an addendum recommendation that the cost of future airline tickets for academic research on this subject would be better spent on canvas to provide shade on some hot Brazilian beach.

Additional information:

A travel blog for this research project