Public data against corruption

Lara Isa Costa Ferreira

PhD candidate at the School of Architecture and Urbanism, University of São Paulo

“Brazil's problem is corruption”. Recurrently this statement can be heard. Widespread perceptions most often result from the construction of narratives based on disseminated information, but not always faithful to social and political complexities of the world. To this end contribute suspicions and complaints about corruption cases, investigations and judgments, but also, and above all, what and how information and interpretations are disseminated about such suspicions and investigations. Means of communication, both formal and informal (for example through the use of social networks) contribute to the perception and knowledge of the public. The decision on what to narrate and how to narrate a story involves choices with implications for the receivers of a given narrative, the audience. It is therefore convenient that the construction of a perception is also a consequence of what information the public has access to. And if, on the one hand, the known cases of corruption within the public system in Brazil contribute to confirm the initial perception, as does the media construction of narratives about them, on the other hand, the fact that the population has access to this information, seems to demonstrate some form of social control and denunciation of these same cases.

Before moving on to further elaborations on access to public information and how this issue is directly related to the fight against corruption as presented in Data Talks #5: Public Data Against Corruption, it is important that I introduce myself and provide details to where my reflection comes from. My name is Lara Ferreira, I am a Portuguese architect and urban planner, graduated from the Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade do Porto, Portugal (FAUP-2011), with a master's degree in Architecture and Urbanism from the Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo da Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil (FAUUSP-2017), and PhD candidate at the same institution since 2019. I have been living in São Paulo since 2013, where I have been researching and working on social housing. It is from this place and from my research and professional experiences, more specifically about popular housing and urban issues in Brazil, that I approach the topic Public Data Against Corruption. And if the introduction to this text is based on my perceptions about common senses, I will try to advance from now on, in a reflection that relates current urban and housing issues with the theme of corruption and access to public information and data.

Grajau Community, São Paulo, Brazil.

Photo by Danilo Alves, Unsplash.

In Data Talks #5, the guests and mediators highlight access to public information, availability and intelligibility of data, and transparency as possible ways not only to monitor and fight corruption, but also to measure and evaluate corruption in any system. Bianca Vaz Mondo addresses the issue of land and information on land ownership to exemplify public social control or the absence of it. In fact, access to land and housing in Brazil is one of the reasons and also a reflection of the country's social inequality. Historically, the poorest population - but also with other social markers considered non-hegemonic and dominant, like race, gender, religion, among others - has difficulty accessing land and decent housing. The so-called “irregular processes” of occupation for housing purposes are known. In cities take on formats such as favelas, slums, both on peripheral and city central areas. These have been some of the possible ways that the poorest population has found to resolve their housing situation in Brazil. However, most of them do not guarantee decent living conditions, either because of insecurity of tenure and permanence, because of the precariousness of construction, infrastructure or occupation, because they are at environmental risk, among other deficiencies or threats. Unequal access to goods, property, land and housing is as historic as the history of contemporary Brazil. This story begins with the crimes of invasion by the Portuguese on indigenous people lands and the exploitation and trade of human beings through slavery. However, not only has there never been reparation for these crimes, which perpetuate in the inequalities of Brazilian society to this day, but there seems to be a historical erasure of this narrative, which places limits on the collective overcoming of such challenges.

Despite everything, Brazil's historic inequality has faced struggles and some victories. The Agrarian and Urban Reforms (Reformas Agrária e Urbana) never materialized, but the social movements that fight for greater equality in access to land and guarantee of rights for all people in the same way, are responsible for some achievements. In Brazil there are progressive urban legislations, among them the Estatuto da Cidade (City’s Statute) (Federal Law No. 10,257/2001), or the Lei de Assistência Técnica para Habitação de Interesse Social - ATHIS (Technical Assistance Law for Social Interest Housing) (Federal Law No. 11,888/2008). The first deals with the Right to the City, being one of the most celebrated urban laws in the world, the second guarantees the right to specialized technical support for housing for low-income families. However, these and other progressive laws are not fully effective in Brazil. Even the majority of the population is unaware of these and other rights. If there is no knowledge, how can someone demand those implementations?

São Paulo - Movimento dos Trabalhadores sem Teto - MTST (Movement of Homeless Workers) claim affordable housing at Avenida Paulista .

Photo by Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil, Wikimedia Commons.

Let's take as an example the social housing movements, which, through the occupation of empty properties, denounce the need to fulfill the social function of property, considered in the Federal Constitution and seek to guarantee one of the fundamental rights of human beings, the right to housing. However, these movements are constantly persecuted and criminalized, including by the media. And in legal disputes, it is common that the right to private property prevails at the expense of the right to decent housing, to fulfill the social function of property, or to attend to the guidelines legislated in the Estatuto da Cidade. Eviction actions on occupied properties are recurrent, including with the use of violence, implemented by the State itself, most of which are endorsed by public opinion, which is unaware of the aforementioned rights and laws. The concentration of goods and benefactors continues to be the rule in a country where dominant groups hold the places of power, in governments at all scales, in control of the means of production, and in control of the mass media.

Data Talks #5 speakers reinforce the importance of having access to public data so that there is social monitoring over the implementation of laws and public investments. So that it is possible to monitor and report possible situations of corruption, but also to demand rights and services. There is no disagreement with this point. It is also necessary not only to permit access to these data and information, but also that they are intelligible and translated to the population not specialized in a given subject. It is also necessary that there is availability and possibilities for the population to have access to this same information. If we need to fight for processes of transparency and access to information so that social monitoring over the implementation of public resources and services is effective, we need even more and unanimously to guarantee access to the right to live with dignity, to food and drink, to health, decent housing, the city, education, culture, for all people in the same way, without exception. It is also suggested that access to public data be accompanied by their translation, allowing the establishment of dialogues with all audiences, regardless of their condition, especially those who have historically been most disadvantaged.

In this sense, the actions of organized social movements, which promote internal political formation for poor and vulnerable families, stand out. With regard to knowledge about urban and housing issues, we find some social movements promoting specific training on access to public programs, legislation, or the construction of targeted demands, which strengthens the struggles for the right to decent housing and the city. Some of these trainings are carried out by specialist technicians, members or external to the movement. There are also popular technical advisors (assessorias técnicas populares), groups of technicians (from architecture and urbanism, but also from other disciplines), organized in associations or other non-profit formats, which maintain proximity to social movements, and have participated not only in training, but also in concrete actions for the construction of fairer cities.
In the city of São Paulo, there are several groups that work in technical assistance, more or less formalized. Usina CTAH , Peabiru TCA , and Ambiente Arquitetura are three of the oldest technical advisors groups in the city whose repertoire includes the development of projects and works for housing production, slum upgrading processes and urban improvements. There are also technical advisors created within the social movements themselves, such as FIO Assessoria Técnica Popular , a young group created within the MSTC - Movimento Sem-Teto do Centro, where exchange and dialogue between the community and technicians is already favored. These actions are crossed by internal and external training processes, contributing to the training of socially responsible professionals, but also to the translation of data and specialized information that was previously discussed. It should be noted that these dialogues and information translations are truly exchanges and work both ways. It is often the residents of popular communities and movement leaders who translate information, whether from official data or real life, so that the technicians can use them in the development of their work.

In the current political scenario, of loss of social rights, the recent actions of technical advisors have gone through resistance actions, for example in the case of eviction threats. Technical advisors have developed reports, counter-reports and popular plans to support the struggle for communities' permanence, and claim public interventions aimed at their real demands. In addition, the performance of technical advisors also crosses participation in official and institutionalized spaces of dispute and political articulation, such as the Municipal Housing Council of São Paulo, contributing to the struggle for the approval of laws, programs and investments that guarantee the decent housing and the right to the city for all people.

Despite the recent growth of interest in this form of work by professionals in architecture and urbanism in the country, it is far from unanimous. In some universities they actually are absent. The budgetary and programmatic conditions for the ATHIS Law to be implemented and accessed without exception are not yet guaranteed. And we are still far from the unanimous perception that the Right to Decent Housing, Land and the City must be universally guaranteed in Brazil and in the rest of the world.
For equality and against corruption, the road is long. It takes not only the transparency, accessibility and intelligibility of information, but also the dispute of powers, at all scales, dimensions and spaces.

Lara Isa Costa Ferreira

PhD candidate at the School of Architecture and Urbanism, University of São Paulo

Lara Ferreira. Architect and urban planner, graduated by the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto - Portugal (FAUP - 2011), Master of Science by the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo (FAU USP - 2017), and doctoral candidate (since 2019) at the same institution. She has researched on housing settlements, has gathered experience in slum urbanization projects and in technical advice for social housing movements. Contact info: lara.icf@usp.br

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