Improving Citizenship and The Right To The City by using ICTs: Brazilian Examples

Geisa Bugs1

1PhD Researcher, Urban and Regional Planning, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil. Email: geisabugs@gmail.com

INTRODUCTION

Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are the technical means to handle information and aid communication (Foldoc, 2008). With the advent of the Web, ICTs evolved significantly, creating new communication systems that reshape the processes of acquisition, organization, representation, and construction of information and knowledge (Di Felice, 2007; Haller & Höffken, 2010). The so-called "information age" is characterized by the widespread adoption of Web technologies in all spheres of our lives (Castells 1996; Centelles, 2006).

Social media refers to a group of Web applications that allow for the creation and exchange of user-generated content (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). Users share all kinds of information about themselves and interact with one another in these applications (Rocha & Pereira, 2011). Social media are also widely used to coordinate events in the physical world in real time, because they offer access to social networks, expanding significantly the social sphere (Pereira et al., 2013). In other words, social media enable social networks to be easily formed and to become more visible.

Also a country of contrasts such as Brazil has been showing the technology conditions and a public interest in the use of social media and ICTs. Over the last decade, some 40 million people have risen out of poverty. Now, more than half of the population can be found in the middle of the national income distribution (C and B classes) 1. The number of smart phones with Internet access and broadband has grown enormously. According to a national survey from IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), the number of Internet users (77,7 million) grew 143.8% and of mobile phone users (115,4 million) 107.2%, between 2005 and 2011 2 (IBGE, 2014). A survey conducted by the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (2012), called Research on the use of Information Technologies and Communication in Brazil - Households and Business 2011 shows the popularity of online networking among Brazilians. In 2011, 69% of Internet users in Brazil were participating in online social networks such as Orkut, Facebook and LinkedIn. Increasingly, Brazilians are using online tools to call for social change as well. On Change.org (2013) - one of the largest platforms for online petitions - the number of participants has risen 646% in 2013.

Thus, to illustrate the use of social media and ICTs for citizen empowerment, collaborative projects, online activism, and civic engagement, this paper presents a number of Brazilian examples of bottom-up practices originated or supported by ICTs. As the initiatives are evolving at an increasing rate, the article provides up to date examples of what is going on in this context. A hypothesis can be drawn from the observed examples: ICTs and especially the social media are promoting changes in the citizen's relationship with government and urban space. Following, each section presents a short introduction, followed by the example's description and discussion, in order to tie it to the literature on ICTs and social media, as well as to the local context.

CITIZEN EMPOWERMENT

Heng and More (2003), among others, believe that the Web has the potential to promote social change by creating a space for the weaker and marginalized voices. The Web allows an efficient distribution of information, reduces the technical and financial barriers to activists, and transcends the State's direct regulatory control. The following two examples illustrate cases where "the weaker" are using technologies for community empowerment.

The New Social Cartography Project of the Amazon (PNCSA, in Portuguese), supported by the Ford Foundation (2010), is collaborating with indigenous communities to map their territories, combining local knowledge with scientific and policy expertise (Acselrad & Coli, 2008). More than 100 communities have taken part so far, mapping more than 1 million hectares (Figure 1). In their words (Ford Foundation, 2010):

"The Brazilian Amazon is vast, encompassing an estimated 500 million hectares. Largely as a result of progress made by the indigenous rights movement, 22% of the region is now officially protected as indigenous people's land, and another 22% is designated for conservation or sustainable use. Still, 41% remains contested. With no official owner, undeveloped land can be seized and exploited by private interests or government. One community at a time, the PNCSA is establishing the rights of traditional communities to their territory, protecting natural resources and strengthening the social movement."

The Wikimapa project (2013) from Rede Jovem (2013) is a collaborative virtual map focusing on identifying sites of public interest (i.e. hospitals, schools, shops, parks, sports fields, restaurants, bars) in low-income communities favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. The process is powered by several participants, through mobile phones with Internet access (Figure 2). It aims to cut social gaps, through the exposure of what exists and happens in low-income communities, breaking the stigma of violence and marginalization. In their words (Wikimapa, 2013):

"From the use of new information technologies and communication, Wikimapa enables access and democratization to information, increasing social participation of adolescents who become information providers for local disclosure, not just consumers, and they create new cultural and geographical references."

The project has received several international awards, such as the Stockholm Challenge (2010).

figure1
Figure 1: Beija Flor Community Map. Source: Ford Foundation (2010).
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Figure 2: Wikimapa project. Source: Wikimapa (2013).

Both of these examples, show how marginalized groups are using ICTs to have a louder voice in society. The first is helping indigenous communities fight their territorial disputes. As the map is a specific set of assertions of power and knowledge, not only the State but also others are able to make powerful statements through maps (Crampton & Krygier, 2008). The second example shows the wish to appear, literally, "on the map". Undoubtedly, favelas are becoming a recognizable part of Brazilian culture. The artist Helio Oiticica has been strongly inspired by the favela's architecture (Jacques, 2001). Nowadays Rio´s slums are an affordable World Cup accommodation3 . According to the Stockholm Challenge (2010):

"Wikimapa meets all the development and empowerment criteria. It reaches out and into the poverty areas. The grass roots approach with young people and their familiar ICT environment is a unique aspect of the project. It has the high potential of making "invisible" areas more visible."

COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS

The Web's communication flow recognizes the freedom to share and reuse content, a kind of uncontrolled collective intelligence (Pereira et al., 2013). Lévy (1998) defines collective intelligence as a form of universally distributed intelligence, coordinated in real time, which results in effective mobilization of skills. The collective production phenomena, also known as crowdsourcing (Howe, 2006), takes contributions from the collective intelligence, and by using the knowledge and work of voluntary users is able to solve problems, create content, and develop new technologies. The following examples illustrate cases where people voluntarily collaborate by adding information and/or participating in discussions about city life.

Wikicrimes (2013), from the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), allows users to search, view, and post criminal events on a map. Users can select crimes by group, place a marker at a specific place, and fill in information. The web page automatically displays statistics on the contributions (Figure 3). The creator's concern is that victims of crimes usually do not report the events, or the police monopolize the information concerning crime. According to them, public security departments have refused to collaborate with the project. Such behavior, demonstrates how data transparency is still a taboo in Brazil. Thus, maybe more than becoming a tool against criminality, this is an initiative that brings transparency to public security.

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Figure3: Wikicrimes interface. Source: Wikicrimes (2013).

The project New Cartographies (2013) approaches mapping as a creative instrument of recognition, reflection, and action on the urban territory. With the sponsorship of the City of Rio de Janeiro, the project develops partnerships and research on participatory maps that seek to go beyond simple representation of the physical city space. One experiment attempts to map the ways in which Rio comprises different zones. Another relates social indices (e.g. life expectancy, population aging, and property costs) of the Policy Pacification Units (UPP in Portuguese - favelas formerly controlled by traffic)4 . There is also a collaborative project where users can view the paths made daily by cyclists through videos and texts sent by volunteers (Figure 4). The last one is a continuous production process that reinforces the feeling that "I can also create/join something" and generates visualizations for the understanding of city realities that, in general, are not otherwise available.

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Figure 4: New Cartographies interface. Source: New Cartographies (2013).

ONLINE ACTIVISM

Today, the Internet is being identified as more strongly associated with civic engagement than the printed media , television, and even face to face discussions (Rothberg, 2008). Internet activism has more participants due to the ease of connection between people, the speed of information flow, and low operating costs.

Through online activism, projects such as the Urbanias (2013) looks to alter aspects of urban reality. The site collects citizens' complaints and sends them to the competent bodies, asking for a response (Figure 5). Via podcasts, the site administrators show their relationship with government agencies, what kind of problems are difficult to solve, and their work routines in details. Currently, the site only meets the demands of the city of São Paulo. According to the creators, the proposal is to promote activism, providing mechanisms and tools that help and encourage personal entrepreneurship and improvement of all aspects related to the quality of life in the city. In other words, Urbanias aims to end the inertia of the citizens vis a vis urban problems, as well as the inertia of the competent bodies to solve them.

An alternative journalism group formed in 2011, called NINJA - Narratives Independent Journalism and Action (2013), which has more than 225.000 likes on Facebook (Figure 6), and has became known worldwide since the live transmissions of the public demonstrations during the Confederations Cup5 . Their work is known for socio-political activism, claiming to be an alternative to the traditional press. The Ninja's transmissions are a realtime video stream, over the Internet, using mobilephone cameras6 . In the words of one participant:

"People were expecting more coverage about what was happening in the streets [and] I think the [traditional] media could not read quickly what was happening in the networks and on the streets, and we were always present in the protests, broadcasting everything live, photographing and taking the point of view of the protesters" (Soares, 2013).

They encourage anyone to send live videos for upload via NINJA. In this sense, they encourage people to start acting like journalists, but closer to the origin of the facts and sources that usually would be left out of the "traditional" reporting of the mainstream media.

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Figure 5: Urbanias blog. Source: Urbanias (2013).
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Figure 6: Media NINJA webpage on Facebook. Source: NINJA (2013).

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT

The mass adoption of ICTs in all areas of society is forcing governments to become more citizen-oriented. The literature recognizes ICTs skills as a means to intervene in the relationship between citizens and their government, resulting in significant changes in the operational mode of contemporary politics (Centelles, 2006). A new model is emerging in urban governance, formed by all stakeholders participating in decision-making, each voice providing different perspectives of meaning attached to the same specific issue to be considered (Castells, 1996).

Initiatives such as the Votenaweb (2013) aims to discuss the decision-making between government and the public. Votenaweb is a nonpartisan site of civic engagement, which presents simple and brief proposals that are being presented to the National Congress (Figure 7). Anyone can vote symbolically for or against the proposals and give opinions. The goal is to offer an easier way for citizens to follow the politician's work and to keep informed about what happens in the National Congress. Moreover, it is possible to compare their votes with others and with the Parliamentarians (Wikipedia, 2013).

figure7
Figure 7: Vote on Web interface. Source: VotenaWeb (2013).

The Center for Advanced Studies on Digital Democracy (CEADD) from the Federal University of Bahia (UFBa) conducted a study on people's expectations on the platform (CEADD, 2013). From the 2.833 people who responded to the survey, 26% have as their primary intention to affect the decisions of lawmakers. When asked what Votenaweb means to them, 37% claimed that it was a way to affect the political life of the country. Regarding what else the platform could offer, 37% of the users wanted to be able to talk directly with parliamentarians. According to the authors, these results show that people feel they are being rarely heard by their representatives. Thus, there is a willingness to be heard. In the words of Castells (2013) in an interview about the case of Taksim Square in Istanbul:

"…most citizens do not feel represented by democratic institutions. They are not against the democracy (...) They are against this democratic practice in which the political class appropriates the representation, does not report back, and justify anything based on the interests that really matter to the State. It does not respect the citizens (...) That is what citizens feel and think: that they are not respected?"

FINAL REMARKS

The above examples illustrate that nowadays a growing group of citizens are able to get involved by using ICTs and especially the social media. An increasing number of bottom-up initiatives aim to improve citizenship and the right to the city. The ability to communicate and interact, not only with peers but also with institutions, and political representatives, opens new possibilities for the idea that citizens can play an active role in the civic sphere.

For some time now, critical currents speak of the obsolescence of the state, favoring a social order that recognizes the movement and flows within organized networks that emerged with ICTs (Castells, 1996). Regarding changes in the relations with urban space, the words of Pereira et al. (2013, p. 10) are remarkable:

"Social networks are now the space where people, especially the young ones, connect, communicate, display and interact much more than the streets, plazas and malls (...)The categories of "public" and "public space" must be revised (...) How this affects architecture and urbanism is still a matter of debate among professionals, but changes are underway."

Accordingly, it is reasonable to suppose that new forms of governance and civic engagement are emerging, and that these phenomena are producing changes in the citizen's relationship with government and urban space. Nevertheless, its real effect is yet to be proven and understood. A further analysis should focus on the analysis of the nature and ways how these changes occur.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thanks to CAPES Foundation, Ministry of Education, Brazil, for supporting part of this research during a PhD exchange program in Finland.

ENDNOTES

1 See news available at Folha de São Paulo online newspaper. Retrieved January 23, 2014 from http://frombrazil.blogfolha.uol.com.br/2013/03/22/what-is-middle-class/
2 See news available at IBGE webpage. Retrieved January 23, 2014 from http://saladeimprensa.ibge.gov.br/en/noticias?idnoticia=2382&view=noticia
3 See news available at the New York Times. Retrieved January 23, 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/22/world/americas/now-taking-world-cup-bookings-rios-slums.html?_r=0
4 The Police Pacification Unit is a law enforcement and social services program pioneered in the state of Rio de Janeiro, which aims at reclaiming territories, more commonly favelas, controlled by gangs of drug dealers. By May 2013, 231 favelas had an UPP (Wikipedia, 2013).
5 See news available at The Guardian. Retrieved November 4, 2013 from www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/29/brazil-ninja-reporters-stories-streets
6 See news available at AFP news agency. Retrieved January 23, 2014 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHIm8HJPpNs

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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441