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Rio’s killer apps

In a metropolis where violent crime is an increasing hazard, moving around can be so dangerous that residents rely on crowdsourcing to try to avoid getting shot

BY STEPHANIE NOLEN
Published September 6, 2018
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At first, Daniel Carneiro thought he was caught in a normal traffic jam.

But after, maybe, 10 minutes, I heard some shots, and a lot of people were leaving their cars. And I left my car. And I started to ask: ‘C’mon, what’s happening?’

your nav dosen´t support picture element Map imagery: Google Earth

It turned out his drive home from work had been interrupted by a gun battle between rival drug gangs in a nearby favela.

your nav dosen´t support picture element Map imagery: Google Earth

There are more and more shootings in the city – between different gangs, and between police, soldiers and suspected criminals – as the public security situation in Rio and other Brazilian cities deteriorates.

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It was the first time that Daniel, a 38-year-old engineering project manager, was caught in a shootout. He had to abandon his car on the road and hide with others in a nearby building for 45 minutes. After that, he decided he needed a new way to commute.

I started to think, if I run into the same situation again I have more freedom to choose. I don't have to be worried about my car, parking in the middle of the street, stopped.

Daniel went looking for new ways to try to stay safe. He started routinely checking apps before and during his commute to avoid violence.

In 2016, two apps launched to help people stay safe while moving around the city: Fogo Cruzado (Crossfire) and Onde Tem Tiroteio (Where There's Shooting).

Screen recording of Fogo Cruzado app

Both non-profit, community-based ventures provide a real-time map of user-reported incidents of gunfire around the city. In an average day, there are 15 shootings, and two people die of gunshot wounds.

Daniel decided to switch to public transit, choosing between either the bus or the subway. He decides based on what’s looking safest each day, using information from Onde Tem Tiroteio (OTT) and two other apps.

Screen recording of Onde Tem Tiroteio app

He relies on OTT to tell him specifically where there are shootings.

Screen recording of Waze app

He also checks WAZE to see what traffic is like. Blocked traffic can be a sign of a violent incident.

Screen recording of Facebook app

And he looks at Facebook to see if anyone is posting about violence in community groups for the favelas and other areas he will pass on the way.

An hour before leaving work, Daniel starts to check his phone, looking to see where there is shooting, using the apps to try to figure out the safest way home.

Satellite imagery: Google

The fastest way is the bus. It takes roughly one hour — twice as long as it took Daniel to drive before he decided to leave his car at home.

Satellite imagery: Google

But the subway is safer. It takes three times as long as driving, but it's easier to avoid shooting when you're underground.

Shooting incidents from Fogo Cruzado data (June 2017 through May 2018)
Satellite imagery: Google

And there has been a lot of shooting to avoid. This is Fogo Cruzado’s incident data for the twelve-month period ending May 2018.

Shooting incidents from Fogo Cruzado data (June 2017 through May 2018)
Satellite imagery: Google

Many of these incidents were close to Daniel’s route home.

Living in Rio you have a feeling of being afraid all the time. You do not have a feeling of a secure place to live. You don't know if you will be alive at the end of the day, it's scary.

Shooting incidents from Fogo Cruzado data (June 2017 through May 2018)
Satellite imagery: Google

Once Daniel leaves work, he starts checking the app every few minutes. His first step doesn't require any decisions. He takes the commuter shuttle from his work campus to a transport hub near a big mall.

your nav dosen´t support picture element Shooting incidents from Fogo Cruzado data (June 2017 through May 2018)
Satellite imagery: Google

But when he gets off the shuttle, he has to decide whether to take a bus to the subway or another that goes straight home.

Shooting incidents from Fogo Cruzado data (June 2017 through May 2018)
Satellite imagery: Google

Here he can switch to the subway if the bus route is looking dicey.

Satellite imagery: Google

Here he has one last chance to get on the subway if it seems violence is increasing in the favela Rocinha.

your nav dosen´t support picture element Shooting incidents from Fogo Cruzado data (June 2017 through May 2018)
Satellite imagery: Google

Rocinha is Rio’s largest favela and for years it was peaceful – but when the state went broke and abandoned a community policing project, gangs went to war for the territory. There were 136 different shooting incidents here from June, 2017, through May, 2018.

Shooting incidents from Fogo Cruzado data (June 2017 through May 2018)
Satellite imagery: Google

Once he's past Rocinha, Daniel relaxes a little and flips between Facebook and news sites. When he's off the subway or the bus, he's only a short walk from home.

your nav dosen´t support picture element Satellite imagery: Google

But even this part of his commute is now less safe. He lives near Morro Dona Marta. In the past this favela was calm. But these days there’s shooting here, too – Daniel’s wife recently spent an evening lying on the floor of their apartment, afraid of stray bullets.

your nav dosen´t support picture element Shooting incidents from Fogo Cruzado data (June 2017 through May 2018)
Satellite imagery: Google

Within a twelve-month period there were 11 shootouts here, according to Fogo Cruzado data.

The Rio government made a major investment in public security starting in 2008, but it never reached many of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, and the violence levels there remained high. The new security program has collapsed, and this past year, robberies and shootings surged even in middle-class and wealthy neighbourhoods that had seen large improvements.

Video footage: Reuters

In response to pressure from his voting base, President Michel Temer deployed the military to take over Rio’s security. But the situation only deteriorated: Shootings rose 36 per cent in the first four months of the military intervention, compared with the four before.

And for Daniel, it got to the point where even his assiduous use of the apps has not been enough to keep him safe. A few months ago, heading back to the office from a meeting around noon, he found himself caught in another shootout.

Shooting incidents from Fogo Cruzado data (June 2017 through May 2018)
Satellite imagery: Google

He had to cross the city in a taxi, and he had two possible routes – one was faster, but went past the large favela called Cidade de Deus, or City of God.

Shooting incidents from Fogo Cruzado data (June 2017 through May 2018)
Satellite imagery: Google

The apps said all clear so he told the driver to take the faster way.

your nav dosen´t support picture element Satellite imagery: Google

But they still got caught in a shootout, this one between police and gang members. Daniel and the taxi driver had to lie beneath the car on the hot asphalt for a couple of hours, waiting for the shooting to stop and the road to reopen, so they could get away.

And in the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, because it’s random, you can be caught. Even trying to avoid, even using all the tools that you have.

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Daniel has lived his whole life in Rio. But as he lay on the ground while bullets flew over his head, he decided he had had enough.

It was terrible, it was scary. And I decided to move to another country because it’s not a place that I want to live.

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After the shootout, he gave his two weeks notice at work. He and his wife put their furniture in storage, and they emigrated to Portugal.

Brazil, in one hand, it’s a nice place to live with a lot of beautiful nature, with a lot of friendly people.

But in the other hand, it’s a kind of very difficult place to live with this violence everyday. And it’s very stressful.

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CREDITS: Writing and reporting by STEPHANIE NOLEN; Video by RHIAN JOHN-HANKINSON; Research by ELISÂNGELA MENDONÇA; Design and development by JEREMY AGIUS; Multimedia Editing by LAURA BLENKINSOP; Photo and Video Editing by PATRICK DELL; Editing by ANGELA MURPHY, AFFAN CHOWDHRY and RASHA MOURTADA.

With thanks to Cecilia Oliveira and Fogo Cruzado.