Julia Borges was at her cousin’s 12th birthday party when she was shot. The 17-year-old was sitting on a third-floor balcony when a stray bullet struck him in the spine, lying in the muscle between his lungs and aorta.
That was November 8th. Fortunately, Borges was taken to hospital and has since recovered. Many are not so lucky. At least 106 people have been killed by massacres in Rio this year so far.
Among the most dangerous areas are the narrow streets of the city’s favelas, where more than a million people currently live. Here, the houses are stacked on top of each other, and the streets that wind between them are dotted with small squares. These same streets resonate regularly with the sounds of gunfire: clashes between police and drug traffickers, rival groups of traffickers, or even police-supported militias take place every day.
Innocent victims are often caught in the crossfire. In many cases residents have to lying on the floor or create barricades to hide themselves from huge bullets while waiting for a truce. In 2019, Rio saw one medium of 26 shots per day. Business has been chilling since the pandemic began, but there were still an average of 14 shootings per day until the end of June. About 1,500 people are shot dead in the Rio metropolitan area each year.
Living in Rio is like “being a hostage of violence,” says Rafael César, who lives in the Cordovil neighborhood, west of the city.
Like many residents, César has started using apps to help keep him safe. These crowdsourced apps help users keep track of dangerous areas to go home in and allow residents to warn others of areas to avoid.
One of the most popular applications, Crossed fire, was started by a journalist named Cecilia Olliveira. She had planned to do a story about the victims of stray bullets in the city, but the information she needed was not available. So in 2016 he created a Google Docs spreadsheet to gather information about the shootings, keeping track of where and when they happened, how many victims there were, and even more. In 2018, with the help of Amnesty International, the spreadsheet was transformed into an app and a database to help those who monitor and report on armed violence. The app has been downloaded more than 250,000 times and covers both Rio and Recife.
A user who hears gunshots can record it as an incident in the app. The information is verified and controlled by the Fogo Cruzado team with the support of a network of activists and volunteers and then uploaded on the platform, activating a notification for users. Fogo Cruzado also has a team of trusted collaborators who can instantly upload information without such verification. Users can subscribe to receive updates whenever they head to an area considered dangerous — such as a favela that is known to have had recent shoots, or one that is currently being challenged by gangs.
Fogo Cruzado is being used by local residents who plan to leave home to work or need to check if they are sure to return later, says Olliveira.
“I started using the Fogo Cruzado because there were frequent police operations in a region where it was happening every day,” says journalist Bruno de Blasi. He says WhatsApp groups were full of rumors and false report reports, so he decided to use the app as a way to “avoid unnecessary scares”.
Like many in the city, he had his experience of being near a shooting range. He remembers the one he started on the road where he lives.
“The feeling was horrible, especially because that street was considered one of the safest and quietest in the neighborhood, which is also where the police battalion is located,” he says. “Suddenly, I had to stay away from the window of my room because of the risk of a bullet. She was very tense. “
Fogo Cruzado has also worked with several other organizations to create a new one map of armed groups in Rio de Janeiro. The charter, which was launched in October, is intended to keep city residents up to date on areas that are currently dominated by criminal factions or police militias and are therefore less likely to be safe.
Other apps also collect data on shootings, but Fogo Cruzado is one of the few to be updated by the public, says Renê Silva, editor of the website Voz das Comunidades (Voice of the Communities), which covers the Complexo do Alemão , a large group of favelas in Rio. “There’s a place where the app identifies shooters that don’t come out in the media,” he says.
The app Where There Is Tire (Where there is recovery) works similarly. It was initially created in January 2016 by four friends as a Facebook page. While Fogo Cruzado focuses on the Rio metropolitan region, Where There Is Tire(OTT) covers the entire state – and since 2018, it has also covered the state of St. Paul. It differs from Fogo Cruzada in that it allows the user network to verify the veracity of shooting reports.
Once you’ve downloaded the OTT app, you can choose what you want to receive alerts for, whether it’s shootings, floods or demonstrations. Each anonymous report is reviewed by a network of more than 7,000 volunteers on the ground and confirmed before being uploaded to the app. Weekly reports are also published in the press. More than 4.7 million people used the app last year, according to Dennis Coli, one of the co-founders of OTT.
“OTT-Brasil’s main mission is to drive all citizens out of looting routes organized by gangs, fake police blitzes, and huge bullets, with information collected, analyzed and disseminated in a very short period of time,” he says .
Applications also have a political angle. In addition to keeping Rio citizens safe, they can help researchers and public institutions understand the patterns of violence – and help put pressure on politicians.
“They serve primarily to draw attention to the size of the problem,” says Pablo Ortellado, professor of public policy management at the University of São Paulo. For him, such apps have “a specific but key function to increase the pressure on authority.”
In fact, Recife was chosen as the second city for the Fogo Cruzado app not only because of its high rates of violence, but also because, says Olliveira, the state government had stopped releasing data and had begun to censor journalists. “Previously, there was excellent access to public security data, but data has gradually become scarce and print work has become increasingly difficult,” he says.
In this way, data collection applications can help challenge the information provided by governments, says Yasodara Córdova, MPA / Edward S. Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts.
In the past, the state had a monopoly on official information, but now things have changed, she says. “It’s important to maintain redundant databases, collected by active communities, so that data can be challenged to keep the civic space open and global.”
Felipe Luciano, an OTT user from São Gonçalo, a city near Rio, agrees. “The key is trust,” he says. “What motivated me to use OTT was the credibility of the information posted here. I feel safer using it. ”