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Tech Monthly: CYBER CITIES: Tech hub: No 3: RIO: Silicon samba: Using the digital economy to extend power to those in shantytowns has been a driving force in turning Brazil's most glamorous destination into a cyber city
[February 09, 2014]

Tech Monthly: CYBER CITIES: Tech hub: No 3: RIO: Silicon samba: Using the digital economy to extend power to those in shantytowns has been a driving force in turning Brazil's most glamorous destination into a cyber city

(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Anyone doubting Rio de Janeiro's techward shift need only look at the famous pavement mosaics that mark the promenade along Copacabana beach. The black and white patterns have traditionally resembled the waves across which early settlers and modern tourists travelled. Last year, however, that antique, analogue design has been partly reconfigured to reflect a digital future with the addition of tiled QR codes for smartphones.

The pavement symbols link to online maps and tourist websites. That should be useful to the throngs of visitors expected in this resort during this year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, but the significance goes far beyond the mega sporting events.

The tiled codes are a small part of an attempted makeover of party-town Rio into a Latin-American technology hub. Driven by multinational tech companies, local startups and city universities, the mayor, Eduardo Paes, is trying to shape a future for this resort that is as much about being smart as having fun. This is partly an attempt to ride a nationwide trend. Brazil - which is vying with France and Britain to be the world's fifth biggest economy - is belatedly embracing wireless technology and social networks. Thanks to a surge in recent years, there are now more mobile phones (268.4m) in this country than people. Tablet sales have jumped from 220,000 at the beginning of 2012 to more than 5m today. And Facebook use has increased to the point where Brazil is now second only to the US in terms of the number of users.

More infrastructure and incentives are being developed. Telecom providers are now launching 4G networks in Rio and other World Cup host cities before the start of the tournament in June. The government has also launched a programme, Start-Up Brazil, that offers up to $100,000 in support to local entrepreneurs. Multinational investors are keen to invest in a growing market that will be in the global spotlight like never before. The city of Rio - which benefits from a stunning location, a cluster of universities and being host of the World Cup final and Olympics - aims to be the biggest beneficiary.

Several big tech companies are now moving in. Microsoft has announced a new $100m technology centre in the city that will house a development platform for the Bing search engine and a business incubator for local startups. Cisco Systems plans a $500m innovation centre in Rio that will include a venture-capital fund and co-development of new technologies.

The lure of significant offshore oil finds has also attracted global engineering firms. General Electric has opened its first research and development centre at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro's $500m technology park, which also includes Siemens, Haliburton and Schlumberger among its tenants.

Inequality, poor transport systems and excessive bureaucracy remain major obstacles but at the grass roots technology is arguably being used in the most innovative ways to address social problems. The expansion of wifi and 3G networks into the favela shantytowns has widened the access of residents to information, as well as providing a means for shantytown dwellers to inform the outside world of some of the problems they face.

A digital mapping programme uses cameras on kites to record areas of poor sanitation or pools of murky water where dengue-carrying mosquitoes breed. And a citizens group, Meu Rio, set up a CCTV camera outside a school threatened with demolition so activists could be alerted if bulldozers arrived.

Its social network campaign, which attracted tens of thousands of followers, forced authorities to change their plans and showed how technology is being used by a wide range of government and non-government actors to influence policy.

(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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