Our recent research explores the connection between participatory mapping and social media. For communities challenged by poor political representation, new technologies offer innovative forms of expression and voicing social unrest. Rio de Janeiro serves as a useful case study given how tensions have been exacerbated by recent police militarization in favela communities. The project highlights not only how Rio de Janeiro residents use Instagram and Twitter to express their thoughts and feelings on the police occupation of their neighborhoods, but also explores how social media can be used as a research tool for data collection, documentation and analysis. Geolocating social media feeds, tweets and Instagram posts becomes a form of participatory mapping. Social media users in favelas are able to literally put themselves on the map and simultaneously express their views on an issue.

Unidade de Policia Pacificadora / Police Pacifying Units (UPP)

In the case of police pacification in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian favelas have been depicted as areas of drugs, gangs, and perpetual warfare between residents and police. However, by researching life in the favela through social media we uncovered an alternate story, one that highlights family and social life in a positive light rather than the media’s negative portrayal of favelas. The Unidade de Policia Pacificadora or police pacifying units employed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are part of a city, state, and federal partnership to increase safety in favela areas of the city. At the end of 2008, Rio de Janeiro began the program in parts of the city historically characterized as dangerous. While the municipality designed the police pacification units (UPP) with the intention of increasing safety, their presence in favelas have had mixed results. This has been documented by ongoing cases of violence between gangs and UPP forces, as well as tweets and Instagram posts of protests and other expressions of ridicule against the UPPs presence. In some cases, violence has even increased in some communities after the police occupation. 

Even more problematic has been the influence of the World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 summer Olympics. These globally televised events have drawn attention to the city and increased the pressure on the government to improve the negative image of favelas, often referred to as “slums”. The confluence of these major sporting events and the police pacification program has raised the question as to who benefits from the UPPs presence. Furthermore, as a marginalized and disenfranchised part of society, the favela resident’s voice is often excluded from discussions of police pacification. This compounds the extreme needs for basic services and level of poverty found in these communities. Rather than finding ways to empower these residents, UPPs rhetoric implies that they are unruly members of society that need pacifying. This is where alternative forms of inclusion into a dialogue around police pacification may prove significant in favela communities a voice.

  Study area 1: Complexo do Alemao Study area 2: Providencia, Morro da Coroa, Fallet, Morro do Fogueteiro


Study area 1: Complexo do Alemao

Study area 2: Providencia, Morro da Coroa, Fallet, Morro do Fogueteiro

Social media is a tool used worldwide to express thoughts, feelings and concerns on various issues. Although social media is not often thought of as a formal repository of data, it nonetheless holds a vast amount of valuable data about people's everyday lives and interactions with the built environment. Mobile applications such as Twitter and Instagram have become so ubiquitous that even residents in neighborhoods without formal infrastructure can access these outlets. When used by residents in informal settlements these mobile applications provide researchers an additional layer of data that can be used to make inferences about everyday life.

At its best, social media can provide researchers with subjective views on neighborhood change. However, when combined with a geographic location, tweets and pictures can become even more powerful data sources. For example, when groups of people within a specific geography begin to express similar sentiments towards neighborhood change it can help researchers gauge residents' feelings and how they are distributed across space. This means that geolocation tools can provide researchers with accurate data points which can be used to map people's feelings, actions and actual events of neighborhood change.

This project attempts to tell the story of favela residents in Rio de Janeiro using their own words, pictures and videos to describe the impacts of UPP attempts to pacify their neighborhoods. By scraping data from both Instagram and Twitter, we hope to reveal an alternate story of the favela pacification to the mainstream rhetoric about neighborhood change. Social media offers an opportunity for residents to express their discomfort and disapproval of the police occupation of their neighborhoods. This project not only seeks to access data about the informal settlements but highlights how residents can exert their own influence on neighborhood dynamics through storytelling. 


This analysis demonstrates how researchers can harness social media and geolocation to access data that would otherwise be unavailable through formal databases. The power of social media and participatory mapping lie within their capabilities to not only provide points on a map but also tap into people's sentiments and feelings towards their neighborhoods. Using geolocation and social media mapping techniques can be a new tool for planners and researchers to tap into informal networks.

Some of our findings are represented in the following tweets from residents from several favela’s in Rio de Janeiro:

“O governo so fez a upp pra acabar com o favelado” (The government only created the UPP to end the favela resident)

“Somos apenas uma praga que seu sistema criou! UPP e o caralho” (We’re just a plague that you’re system created!)

“Ta na hora da Upp acabar” (It’s about time for the UPP to end)

Many tweets geolocated in favela areas express general disdain and criticism of UPPs presence. Alternative storytelling in this form can better inform about resident's lives and offer points of view not often heard through traditional forms of media. Furthermore, the use of social media for these means is unique in that it comes directly from the individuals experiencing these events. It helps to balance and even challenge traditional media portrayals while offering a sense of ownership to community members in influencing how the world views them.

  Some of the tweets are translated to English above.


Some of the tweets are translated to English above.



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