Julia Borges was at her cousin’s 12th birthday party when she was shot. The 17-year-old was standing on a third-floor balcony when a stray bullet hit her in the back, lodging in the muscle between her lungs and the aorta.
It was November 8th. Fortunately, Borges was rushed to hospital and has since recovered. Many are not so lucky. At least 106 people have been killed by stray bullets 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 paths that wind between them are dotted with small squares. These same streets resonate regularly with the sounds of gunfire: battles between the police and drug traffickers, rival groups of traffickers, and even police-backed militias take place on a daily basis.
Innocent victims are often caught in the crossfire. In many cases, residents must lying on the ground or create barricades to hide from stray bullets while waiting for a truce. In 2019, Rio saw a average of 26 shootings per day. Things have cooled slightly since the start of the pandemic, but there were still an average of 14 shootings per day until the end of June. About 1,500 people are slaughtered each year in the Rio metropolitan area.
Living in Rio is like “being held hostage to violence,” says Rafael César, who lives in the Cordovil neighborhood, west of the city.
Like many residents, Caesar began to use apps to protect himself. These crowdsourced apps help users keep track of dangerous areas on their way home and allow residents to warn others of areas to avoid.
One of the most popular apps, Fogo Cruzado, was started by a journalist named Cecilia Olliveira. She had planned to do a story on stray bullet victims in the city, but the information she needed was not available. So, in 2016, she created a Google Docs spreadsheet to collect information on shootings, record where and when they took place, how many victims there were, and more. In 2018, with help from Amnesty International, the spreadsheet was transformed into an app and database to help those monitoring and reporting gun violence. The app has been downloaded over 250,000 times and covers both Rio and Recife.
A user who hears gunshots can log it as an incident on the app. The information is verified and cross-checked by the Fogo Cruzado team with the support of a network of activists and volunteers, then uploaded to the platform, triggering a notification for users. Fogo Cruzado also has a team of trusted contributors who can instantly upload information without such control. Users can subscribe to receive updates whenever they head to an area deemed unsafe, such as a favela known to have recently suffered shootings or which is currently being contested by gangs.
Fogo Cruzado is used by local residents who plan to leave their homes to work or who need to check whether it is safe to return afterwards, explains Olliveira.
“I started using the Fogo Cruzado because there were frequent police operations in an area that I passed through every day,” explains journalist Bruno de Blasi. He says the WhatsApp groups were full of rumors and fake reports of shootings, so he decided to use the app as a way to “avoid unnecessary scares”.
Like many in the city, he had his own experience of being close to a shootout. He remembers the one who started on the street where he lives.
“The feeling was horrible, especially since this street was considered one of the safest and quietest in the neighborhood, where the police battalion is also located,” he says. “All of a sudden I had to stay out of my own bedroom window because of the risk of a stray bullet. It was very tense.
Fogo Cruzado also worked with a number of other organizations to create a new map of armed groups in Rio de Janeiro. The map, which launched in October, is designed to keep city residents up to date with areas currently dominated by criminal factions or police militias and are therefore less likely to be safe.
Other apps also collect data on the shootings, but Fogo Cruzado is one of the few that is publicly updated, says Renê Silva, editor of the Voz das Comunidades (Voices of Communities) website, which covers the Complexo do Alemão, a large group of favelas in Rio. “There are places where the app identifies shootings that don’t come out of the media,” he says.
The application Onde Tem Tiroteio (Where There Shooting) works the same way. It was originally created in January 2016 by four friends as a Facebook page. While Fogo Cruzado focuses on the Rio metropolitan area, Onde Tem Tiroteio(OTT) covers the whole state – and since 2018 it also covers the state of São Paulo. It differs from Fogo Cruzada in that it allows the user network to verify the veracity of the shooting reports.
Once you’ve downloaded the OTT app, you can choose what you want to receive alerts about, whether it’s shootings, floods, or protests. Each anonymous report is reviewed by a network of over 7,000 volunteers in the field 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 remove all citizens from gang-organized looting routes, fake police blitzes and stray bullets, with information that is collected, analyzed and disseminated in a very short time. He said.
The apps also have a political angle. In addition to keeping Rio’s citizens out of harm’s way, they can help researchers and public institutions understand patterns of violence and put pressure on politicians.
They “serve mainly to draw attention to the dimension of the problem,” explains Pablo Ortellado, professor of public policy management at the University of São Paulo. For him, these applications have “a specific but essential function of increasing pressure on the authorities”.
Indeed, 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 publishing data and started to censor journalists. “Before, there was excellent access to public safety data, but the data has gradually become scarce and the work of the press has become increasingly difficult,” she says.
In this way, data collection applications can help challenge 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 today things have changed, she says. “It’s healthy to maintain redundant databases, collected by active communities, so that data can be questioned in order to keep the civic space open and global.
Felipe Luciano, an OTT user from São Gonçalo, a town near Rio, agrees. “The key is trust,” he says. “What motivated me to use OTT was the credibility of the information published there. I feel more secure using it.