Applications that protect Rio’s residents from stray bullets

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Julia Burgess was at her cousin’s 12th birthday party when she was shot. The 17-year-old was standing on a balcony on the third floor when a stray bullet hit her in the back, lodging in the muscle between her lungs and the aorta.

That was November 8th. Fortunately, Borges was hospitalized and has since recovered. Many are not so fortunate. At least 106 people have been killed by stray bullets in Rio this year so far.

One of the most dangerous areas is the narrow streets of the city’s slums, where more than a million people currently live. Here, houses pile on one another, and little squares dot alleys blowing in the wind. These same streets echo regularly with the sounds of gunfire: shouting between police and drug dealers, or competing groups of smugglers, or even police-backed militias occur on a daily basis.

Innocent victims often get caught in the crossfire. In many cases residents must Lying on the floor Or the creation of barriers to hide from stray bullets while waiting for the truce. In 2019, Rio experienced Rate 26 shootings per day. Things have calmed down a bit since the pandemic began, but there were still an average of 14 shooting incidents per day until the end of June. Around 1,500 people are shot dead in the Rio metropolitan area every year.

Raphael Cesar, who lives in the Cordoville neighborhood, west of the city, says that living in Rio is like “being hostage to violence”.

A screenshot of the FogoCruzado app
Screen capture from Crossfire


Like many residents, Cesar began using apps to help keep him safe. These crowdsourcing apps help users track dangerous areas on their way home and allow residents to warn others about areas to avoid.

One of the most popular applications, ShootJournalist named Cecilia Oliveira. She had planned to write a story about victims of stray bullets in the city, but the information she needed wasn’t available. So in 2016, she set up a Google Docs spreadsheet to gather information about shootings, log where and when they happened, number of victims, and more. In 2018, with Amnesty International’s help, the spreadsheet was transformed into an app and database to help those who monitor and report 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 on the app. The information is verified and reviewed by the Fogo Cruzado team with the support of a network of activists and volunteers and then uploaded to the platform, which results in a notification being sent to users. Fogo Cruzado also has a team of trusted collaborators who can instantly upload information without such checking. Users can subscribe to receive updates when they head towards an area considered dangerous – like the favela area known to have been under fire recently, or the one that gangs are currently fighting over.

Oliveira says Fogo Cruzado is used by locals who plan to leave the house for work or need to check if it is safe to return afterward.

“I started using Fogo Cruzado because there were frequent police operations in an area I crossed every day,” says journalist Bruno de Blasey. He says WhatsApp groups were full of rumors and false reports of the shooting, so he decided to use the app as a way to “avoid unnecessary worries”.

Like many in the city, he had his own experience approaching penalties. He remembers one starting on the street where he lives.

“The feeling was horrific, especially since this street was considered one of the safest and quietest streets in the neighborhood, where there is also a police battalion,” he says. “Suddenly I had to move away from my room window due to the danger of a stray bullet. It was very tense.”

Fogo Cruzado also worked with a number of other organizations to create a new lineup Map of armed groups In Rio de Janeiro. The map, launched in October, is designed to keep city dwellers updated about the areas currently controlled by criminal factions or police militias, and thus is less likely to be safe.

Other apps also collect data about shootings, but Fogo Cruzado is one of the few to be updated by the public, says Renê Silva, editor of Voz das Comunidades (Voice of Communities), which covers Complexo do Alemão, a cluster of favelas in Ryo. “There are places where the app identifies shootings that don’t appear in the media,” he says.

The application Where there is shooting (Where the photography is located) works in a similar way. It was initially created in January 2016 by four Facebook friends. While Fogo Cruzado focuses on the Rio metropolitan area, Where there is shooting(OTT) covers the entire state – and since 2018, it has also covered the state of São Paulo. It differs from Fogo Cruzada in that it allows the user network to double-check the authenticity of the filming reports.

The funeral of Matthews Lesse
Relatives and friends carry the coffin of 22-year-old Matthews Lisa who was shot dead when he tried to defend his mother during an attack at his family’s store in Rio de Janeiro

AP PHOTO / Liu Correa

Once you download the OTT app, you can choose what you want to receive alerts about, be it shootings, floods or demonstrations. Each anonymous report is reviewed by a network of over 7,000 volunteers on the ground and confirmed before uploading to the app. Weekly reports are released to the press as well. More than 4.7 million people used the app last year, according to OTT co-founder Dennis Cooley.

“The main mission of OTT-Brasil is to keep all citizens away from organized gangs looting, attacking false police, and reckless bullets, with the information collected, analyzed and published in a very short period of time,” he says.

The apps have a political angle, too. In addition to taking Rio’s citizens out of danger, they can help researchers and public institutions understand patterns of violence – and help put pressure on politicians.

Pablo Ortilado, professor of public policy management at the University of São Paulo, says she is “primarily working to draw attention to the dimension of the problem.” For him, such applications have a “specific but essential function to increase pressure on the authorities.”

In fact, Recife was chosen as Fogo Cruzado’s second city not only because of the high rates of violence but also because the state government, Oliveira says, has stopped issuing statements and started censoring journalists. “Previously, there was excellent access to public security data, but data is gradually becoming scarce and journalism has become more and more difficult to do,” she says.

In this way, data-gathering applications can help challenge information provided by governments, says Yasudara Cordova, 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 is healthy to maintain redundant databases, collected by active communities, so that data can be challenged in order to keep civic space open and global.”

OTT user Felipe Luciano from São Gonçalo near Rio agrees. “The key is confidence,” he says. “What prompted me to use OTT is the reliability of the information posted there. I feel safer using it.”

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