Infrastructure is tops, then education and health
Last week the Getúlio Vargas Foundation presented the results of a pioneering study that aims to leapfrog community improvement into the twenty-first century. Using information and communication technology, or ICT, the Melhora Comunidade (Improve Community) study drafted 658 respondents to answer an online survey, by offering prizes and working with local partners. The study was funded by the Ford Foundation and the World Bank.
Home to 60,000, City of God received the city’s second police pacification unit, in February 2009. Made notorious by the 2002 movie that showcased the community’s early years, it ranks 113th out of 126 areas in Rio in terms of the Human Development Index, at only o.751. Per capita income is R$ 648 (US$ 324 equivalent) and average life expectancy is 66.6 years.
The Center for Technology and Society Director Ronaldo Lemos told reporters that the study hoped to prove it’s possible to use ICT to help citizens and government interact, even in areas where digital inclusion is relatively weak. The study’s immediate goal, he added, was to create a pilot case for online research in local internet cafés, “facilitating rapid feedback on public policies- in this case, the police pacification program”.
Although most favelas have neighborhood associations, some quite vibrant, community participation isn’t an everyday factor in the formulation of public policy in Brazil. Government officials favor top-down administration. This year, newly reelected mayor Eduardo Paes sidestepped existing participatory mechanisms and created an ad hoc City Council to debate and ultimately approve his Strategic Plan. Few, if any, members of the council live in favelas, although twenty percent of Rio proper’s 6 million population do.
Keyboard literacy spreads
Young Brazilians of all socioeconomic classses have moved quickly from videogames to Orkut (which they basically took over, from English speakers) to Facebook. With more than 60 million Facebook users, Brazil ranks second only to the United States, and is followed by India. (Brazil is also a top LinkedIn country, with almost nine million users, according to SocialBakers.)
The study also set out to test ICT mobilization strategies; learn about resident perceptions regarding pacification unit implementation and public services; detect new media consumption models, and, notably, “test the validity and advantages, in terms of costs and benefits, of using internet cafés to evaluate public policy”.
Brazil has about 109,000 Lanhouses, or informal internet cafés, according to Sebrae, a small-business support agency. In contrast, the country offers only 5,000 public libraries.
But internet usage outside the home is dropping, as Brazilians acquire smartphones and personal computers. Lanhouse use peaked in 2007 at 47% and dropped to 39% last year, according to Lemos. For this reason, the study also teamed up with local partners, and reached out to respondents directly via Twitter and Facebook. There are seven Lanhouses in City of God.
The survey methodology used pairwise comparisons, and allowed respondents to suggest answers which could then be included in the pairs. Because it was online, the survey skewed the respondent population towards youth, which ended up representing almost three-fourths of the total.
A majority of respondents, 59%, said they feel safer in their community after pacification. Of the total 658 respondents, 26% said that improvement is needed in the area of infrastructure (water and sewage and trash pickup, in particular); 17% ranked education (especially more day care and better quality education) above all else; and 12% chose health (more doctors at clinics and hospitals, as a priority).
Many other preferences were expressed in the survey, summarized here.
Respondents prefer the internet and television to all other media, with Facebook and news in general being the top modes of internet usage.
Lemos said that the study team hopes to work closely with the municipal Social UPP program and its umbrella agency, the Instituto Pereira Passos, as they determine residents’ needs in pacified favelas. There is also a chance that the study methodology will be applied in Haiti and Morocco.
The survey results provide a fascinating picture of rapidly changing digital behavior and of community concerns in an part of the city long neglected by researchers and policymakers. But, in a society that tends to manage demands by prioritizing citizens with greater economic power and political connections, its neat methodology carries the risk of excluding messy public debate and hands-on local input.
It is certainly, for example, simpler to tabulate online survey results than to respond with transparency to community opposition expressed during a six-hour public hearing on a proposed state government metro extension.
Asked regarding this, Lemos said that the study could help communities move in the direction of participatory budgeting, as developed in Porto Alegre.
Meanwhile some cariocas are using the internet to do more than express preferences on hypothetical policy choices. This past week, almost 7,000 people signed an online petition created by the digital activism NGO Meu Rio, to stop the planned demolition of a public school to make way for a new sports facility attached to the Maracanã soccer stadium. And Nov. 8, students, parents and teachers plan to attend a public hearing on the matter.
Watch a video about the survey here.