Thiago Oliveira grew up in Morro dos Macacos, one of Brazil’s poorest neighborhoods in the coastal city of Rio de Janeiro. Fighting sometimes flared between two rival gangs.
When Oliveira was 12, he was involved with one of the gangs, running errands and getting them food. One day, he was handling a grenade that went off in his hand, causing him to lose two fingers. “I almost lost my life, too,” he said.
Oliveira remembers his parents crying for fear of his safety and he decided at that point to disassociate from the gang. But he wasn’t interested in school yet and needed a way to start making money.
He eventually met Melanie Edwards, a California native who was working in Rio de Janeiro for a nonprofit she founded called Mobile Metrix. The organization surveys low-income communities to get an accurate account of needs.
Oliveira had never met a foreigner before and was impressed that someone from another country would want to help his community. He decided that he should help, too, and became a member of her team. “She gave me the opportunity to change my life.”
Edwards came up with the idea for Mobile Metrix during some early travels to Brazil. She had asked different government agencies for the population of one particular community and got two wildly different answers of 5,000 and 60,000 people. “That was my ‘aha’ moment. If we could be off 55,000 people in one favela, how off could we be around the world?”
Further digging revealed that numbers on the poor are usually based on projections or old data, and come from the top-down — usually from federal governments which get their figures from municipalities.
She decided to tackle the problem from the bottom-up, hiring local residents to conduct the surveys and training them on hand-held devices such as mobile phones or digital notepads to collect the data. To motivate the respondents, the Mobile Metrix team hands out samples, such as bars of soap to gauge people’s hygiene practices, as in one particular project funded by Unilever. The surveyors returned in a month to see how many people used the soap and how much they would pay to get more.
Edwards founded Mobile Metrix in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2011 that operations began in Brazil. It now has a seven-member team based in Rio de Janeiro. The organization got a gradual start because it undertook some pilot projects in the beginning, took time to narrow its focus, and had to work through Brazil’s bureaucratic process, said Edwards.
“We started out thinking we would build the software. But we looked in the mirror and asked do we want to be a software company or on the implementation side?”
They got a license for free from a software company to collect the data, enabling them to focus on training local residents on surveying and streamlining their methods of gathering feedback, she said.
“I wish we had made that move sooner, but I’m glad we did because now we have over 4 million data points that we’ve collected in a centralized database.”
The baseline demographic data about a community is open to the public. The more specific data collected at the behest of a client is the property of that client at first, but after a year it reverts back to Mobile Metrix, which then can use the data in its consulting to customers or can resell the results.
Mobile Metrix also invites community leaders to add a few survey questions, from which innovative programs have resulted. For example, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Brazil was interested in starting a recycling program, but the residents who lived on a mountainside were reluctant to travel long distances to drop off their recyclables even though they backed the concept. The NGO came up with the idea of trading rice, beans and milk for the reusable garbage, and it was a big hit, Edwards said.
“It’s the first time [community leaders have] ever had an independent third-party profile of who they are,” she said. The leaders can use the data to attract additional funding for their own nonprofit projects.
Other countries, including South Africa, India and Mexico, have expressed an interest in Mobile Metrix’s services, and the organization currently is considering becoming a for-profit to ensure it has the money for the additional work.
Oliveira, meanwhile, who is now 28 with a wife and 2-year-old daughter, has his own future plans. Since working as a Mobile Metrix surveyor, Oliveira went back to school and studied computers and information technology. He wants to buy a more suitable house for his mother, who has problems with her legs. Now that he is a telecommunications consultant earning a regular living, the possibility is within reach.