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Private mailmen are mapping Brazil’s slums by hand because Google Maps can’t

Over 11 million people in Brazil, about 6 percent of the country’s total population, live in slums of cities called favelas, according to the latest census figures. Among the myriad challenges that arise in these dense, impoverished urban areas, getting mail may seem to be a surprising one. Yet due to the unique, improvised architecture of favelas — the fact that structures are often created and destroyed rapidly, using a variety of available materials, such as concrete, that are impenetrable to mapping satellites — many buildings don’t have addresses. Further complicating matters is the fact that many streets are called different names by residents in different areas. As a consequence, postal workers haven’t been required to deliver mail in these areas, frustrating residents. Many areas only appear on Google Maps and other digital maps in extremely limited forms, as a single road, for example (controversially, Google also removed the word “favela” from some of its maps at urging from the Brazilian government).

But a group of enterprising friends recently decided to tackle the problem starting in Brazil’s largest favela, Rocinha, using good old pen and paper. As Vice Motherboard explains in an article reported from Rocinha, a former bodysurfer turned census worker named Carlos Pedro, together with two of his fellow workers, launched a new private subscription mail delivery service called Friendly Mailman. The startup company was born after Pedro and his cofounders laboriously walked the streets of Rocinha and cataloged the structures that they passed in a paper notebook, using their own custom analog algorithm to assign addresses and differentiate between types of buildings. Their mail service has taken off, expanding to eight favelas in the Rio de Janeiro area. It accepts mail directly from the post office and then distributes it to participating households at a cost of $6.64 USD per month.

While hardly the first effort to map Brazil’s sprawing favelas — a United Nations effort back used camera-equipped kites, while another nonprofit tried GPS-equipped mobile phones; Google and Microsoft are still making progress using their own mapping systems — Friendly Mailman provides the additional service of physical mail and package delivery. On the downside, the maps are proprietary and even if opened to the public, would be difficult for a layperson to use without training. But the idea is an ingenious old school approach to a problem that still frustrates modern mapping technologies.

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