Data for urban policy in Brazil

Giuseppe Filocomo


Rérisson Máximo


Brazil is a federalist country, a system in which the federated entities - central government, states, municipalities - have political, administrative, tax, and financial autonomy. Since the 1988 Federal Constitution, the municipalities have gained a more prominent role in implementing public policies in Brazil, including those aimed at cities. Although local governments are responsible for designing and implementing urban policy, this is also regulated at the federal level by laws such as the City Statute.[1] Given this reality, the implementation of urban policies by each of 5570 Brazilian municipalities gains relevance. This complex scenario brings a set of particularities and challenges to the federalist organization and social rights advancement.

Associated with that, it is up to the federated entities to subsidize public policies with information that presents the reality where such actions will occur. In addition, empirical evidence should guide the development of sectoral plans, programs, and projects. That is because the public policy driven by data - particularly the urban policy - tends to greater efficiency in allocating public resources. This efficiency should be linked to the dissolution of precariousness and socio-spatial inequalities in cities. In this sense, understanding society and cities through empirical evidence should provide data territorialization.

São Paulo, Brazil. Foto: D A V I D S O N L U N A at Unsplash
One of the most relevant data sources used for public policies in Brazil is the decennial Population Census. It is a national survey conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), which produces freely accessible public data that is the primary reference for social and urban policies in the country. According to the IBGE, that survey aims to answer the following questions: How many are we? How are we? Where do we live?[2] How do we live? The importance of the answers obtained through these general questions consists, among others, in the quality and quantity of territorialized data produced on a national scale. Thus, it is possible to understand the Brazilian territory, including its urban space and cities, through the analysis of these data.

Although data produced nationally constitute the primary reference for urban policies in the country, municipalities may undertake their efforts to build local databases. However, according to the Basic Municipal Information Survey, another national survey conducted by IBGE, around 20% of the Brazilian municipalities do not have, for instance, a digital land and real estate property registry. This sort of data would help local governments to implement land and real estate tax and urban policies and, as a result, to amplify the budgetary availability to finance the local urban development. Nevertheless, even those municipalities producing socio-spatial data generally do not make it public or integrate it with other databases. In this sense, it is worth highlighting the exceptions of some local initiatives.

One example of a local database is the electronic portal Geosampa[3], implemented by the Prefeitura do Município de São Paulo, the City Hall of the most populous and wealthiest Brazilian municipality. GeoSampa is the official geospatial database of São Paulo, and it is the most extensive collection of data about this city. That electronic portal provides more than 240 different types of information, such as aerial photographs, satellite images, population, public facilities, urban mobility, road system, environmental data, zoning, historical heritage, etc. Geosampa brings together information produced by the São Paulo municipality and other entities and government levels. Through data provided by Geosampa, citizens, scholars and state agents can get precise and accurate information about the city's urban space, such as population density and social vulnerability. Only a few years after the creation of Geosampa, it seems impossible to think of local urban planning practice devoid of access to quality socio-spatial information since technicians working directly for the municipality widely adopted this electronic portal.

Another example is Fortaleza em Mapas[4], a web-based application that offers geospatial data from Fortaleza, the fifth largest city in Brazil. Fortaleza em Mapas is a service from the Fortaleza City Hall that provides data and maps produced by planning and management institutions linked to that local government. This application includes information about public finance, social and urban issues. Due to this data available to urban policies, it is possible to understand better the local zoning, precarious settlements and land value tax in that city. Both examples, Geosampa and Fortaleza em Mapas, provide information that is, at the same time, used by and originated from public policies.
(...) around 20% of the Brazilian municipalities do not have, for instance, a digital land and real estate property registry. This sort of data would help local governments to implement land and real estate tax and urban policies and, as a result, to amplify the budgetary availability to finance the local urban development. Nevertheless, even those municipalities producing socio-spatial data generally do not make it public or integrate it with other databases.
One of the problems related to the vast quantity of municipalities in Brazil is the asymmetry of institutional and administrative capacities and data availability, which derives from the organization of power and concentration of resources and wealth along with the country. The cities with the largest population and economically dynamic tend to have a better capacity to collect and provide information and data. However, small municipalities generally do not have the resources and infrastructure to collect and deliver data. In these small municipalities, the majority in the country, sometimes urban and housing policies are implemented without accurate knowledge of the problem that those policies are seeking to solve.

Due to this asymmetry, it is worth highlighting federal efforts to induce and support local policies, including those targeted to cities. Among several actions, we can underline the work of the Ministry of Cities[5] in building data for urban policy in Brazil. For a decade and a half (2003-2019), that ministry was an important institution of the central government that provided information and training for local governments to implement their urban policies. One of the results of this significant effort was the combination of different databases that helped develop digital sets of data intended to analyze urban problems. As a result, the Ministry of Cities created the National Cities Information System (SNIC) and the National Urban Indicators System (SNIU). SNIC and SNIU provide a database covering all Brazilian municipalities, allowing comparative analyses and promoting integrated and regional policies. Unfortunately, these platforms are currently unavailable or outdated.
Nowadays, following the recent crisis in Brazil, the construction of empirical evidence on a national scale is under dispute. This situation puts the National Population Census at risk, The Brazilian Population Census is the central database for public policies and normally takes place approximately every ten years. However, due to the pandemic and the recent political and economic phenomena, the 2020 Census is behind schedule. Since 2019 the national mainstream media have publicized adjustments to this national survey. Some examples of these adjustments are the reduction of the questionnaires due to the costs of conducting this survey[6], the cancellation of the hiring process of 204,000 employees[7] and the possible postponement of the Population Census to 2023.[8]

The result of these disputes may be, for example, the infeasibility of calculating household income in the country[9], with direct implications for the formulation, implementation and evaluation of housing policies at national and local levels. For instance, the National Housing Plan (PlanHab), designed in 2008 by the former Ministry of Cities, mainly used the National Population Census data to evaluate and quantify the housing deficit in all Brazilian municipalities according to their different realities. Also directly related to urban policies, the adjustments in that national survey may result in the non-construction of data on rental values, affecting the calculation of the Brazilian housing deficit.

In Brazil, the housing deficit is commonly calculated by a public organization named João Pinheiro Foundation (FJP). Since 1995, this research methodology has been improved to keep up with the socio-spatial transformations in the country. Associated with this, changes in the production of official data led to adjustments in the study and quantification of the Brazilian housing problem. In 2015 the IBGE interrupted a historical series of more than ten years of the National Household Sample Survey (PNAD) by launching the National Continuous Household Sample Survey (PNADC). Following this tendency, IBGE proposed modifications to the next National Census. This modification denotes the efforts to reformulate concepts and calculations on the housing deficit to construct valid national indicators, especially for monitoring public policies and programmes aimed at housing in the country.[10]

It is essential to clarify that the federal government played a role in this process. Due to changes conducted by IBGE, among them the exclusion of collected data from the national surveys, the FJP adopted complementary data. An example is the Unified Registry for Social Programs (Cadastro Único), a national database under central government management focused on quantifying and understanding Brazilian low-income families. The Census remains central to the understanding of the housing needs in the country, despite the necessary complementary statistical arrangements during the last few years, which allowed conducting analyses from 2016 to 2019. The calculation of the housing deficit can be detailed at the municipal level[11] only because it uses the Census's data, available on a national scale. This circumstance is fundamental to guiding the Brazilian municipalities' formulation, implementation, and evaluation of urban policies.

Indeed, the central government should assume good management of financial resources as an essential guideline. However, according to experts, adjustments in the survey questionnaires have a low impact on survey costs. Furthermore, it is necessary to evaluate that a good definition of the National Population Census questionnaires and other public surveys should consider the availability of time series databases. In terms of adjustments in the definition of the survey sample, it is necessary to assume that the Census is the primary reference for the universal understanding of the Brazilian population and territory. In other words, this survey can point out the exclusion of populations by different surveys and some social policies.[12]

The importance of data for public policies and meeting the needs of the poorest people in Brazil, including through urban policies, stands out. However, essential benchmarks, such as official national data, are under dispute. In addition to the importance of carrying out the National Population Census, it is necessary to build the capacities of local governments to construct data in an autonomous and integrated manner and subsidize public policies. This improvement may affect the formulation, implementation and evaluation of local urban policies, including the regulation of urban space and the provision of infrastructures in the reality of Brazilian federalism.

*Editor's note: This text was produced during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022)

[1]According to Raquel Rolnik, brazilian urbanist and UN Habitat Special Rapporteur on adequate housing (2008-2014), the City Statute is “an innovative national legal framework directed to strengthen local planning and land management towards more equitable and sustainable urban development”. That law was approved by the Brazilian Congress in 2001 as a result of political and legal reforms arising from the new Constitution of 1988 in the context of democratization.

[2]<>, consulted on January 2022.

[3]Geosampa can be accessed by the following web address <>, consulted on January 2022).

[4]Fortaleza em mapas can be accessed by the following web address <>, consulted on January 2022.

[5]Created in 2003, the Ministry of Cities was responsible for the national urban development policy and sectoral policies for housing, sanitation and urban transportation.

[6]<>, consulted on January 2022.

[7]<>, consulted on January 2022.

[8]<>, consulted on January 2022.

[9]<>, consulted on January 2022.

[10]<>, consulted on January 2022.

[11]<;jsessionid=node0recswuquzxswn04nugg9yzhg15790961.node0?codteor=1982706&filename=Tramitacao-RIC+83/2021>, consulted in January 2022.

[12]<>, consulted on January 2022.

  • Giusepe Filocomo

    Ph.D. Candidate at FAU-USP

    Urbanist, a PhD candidate at Architecture and Urbanism School of the University of São Paulo and a researcher at the Housing and Human Settlement Lab at the University of Sao Paulo.

  • Prof. Rérisson Máximo

    Assistant professor at IFC and Ph.D. Candidate at FAU-USP

    Urbanist, a professor and an urban researcher. He is currently an assistant professor at the Federal Institute of Ceará and a researcher at the Housing and Human Settlement Lab from the University of Sao Paulo. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism from the University of São Paulo.

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