Hacker Culture is close to Brazilian Culture

Daniela Silva and Pedro Markun work together in the House of Digital Culture in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It’s a co-working space – lovely set-up – where many young people meet and work in the fields of transparency, open innovation, digital culture and and the culture of hacking.

I like this interview a lot, because

  • it shows so much that these 2 young people really love the work they do
  • they are deeply convinced that the topics they are working on will have an impact on Brazlian society
  • they are really good in what they do and
  • they understood that they have to start with themselves first (“be the change you want to see” 😉
  • they don’t live in a bubble
  • it gives pretty cool insights into the Brazilian Internet and hacker scene
  • as well as into Brazilian society


One of my favourite projects Daniela and Pedro are involved in, is the “Ônibus Hacker” – the Hacker Bus. The project was born from the Brazilian online community Transparência Hacker, ‘Hacker Transparency’. It was created in 2009 around a HackDay in São Paulo, and the group’s discussion list now counts over 700 members. As its name says, its focus is (h)activism in favor of public transparency and open data. Previous and ongoing projects include Otoridades, a portal where Brazilians can denunciate abuses of power, and Mapas Livres, which focuses on open mapping.

They participated in Rio de Janeiro’s Digital Culture Festival, Sao Paulo’s Campus Party was also on the agenda, as well as ConSocial. This government initiative was Brazil’s first National Conference on Transparency and Social Control. The most important part of the project will be its interaction with the general public. Hacker Transparency calls it ‘Hacker Invasions’: the group’s plan is to visit small towns, where they can have a stronger impact on local realities. It doesn’t mean they will come up with ready-made solutions; it will be a work in progress, in partnership with the local population. During one weekend, they listened to the inhabitants’ needs and helped them to develop answers with the help of to technology, from blogs to apps. In other terms, it was a local version of their HackDays.

Although these actions are local, Hacker Bus hopes to have a larger impact: thanks to webcams and 3G, anyone interested should be able to watch their progress in real time. Hacker Bus might even physically go beyond Brazil’s borders as the group has received an invitation to visit Uruguay. Quite impressive for a project which only started fundraising less than a year ago.

There is a space …

… in Rio de Janeiro, high above the favelas in Catete: The Maze.

Unexpected right behind another turn of the windy alley in the favela.

And even more so the story behind it.
It’s the story of Bob Nadkarni.

We found Bob because my friend Egon told me to go there. We didn’t know anything about him and his place. We just went there.

I always do what Egon tells me to do;-)
Never went wrong so far …

We went by taxi. The driver seemed somehow confused and wasn’t familiar with the area at all. When he asked the favelados for the address they said: “O Grande Bobé” – just follow the road. The last few 100 meters we had to walk through a very narrow very clean alley, friendly people all over wishing us Merry Christmas (yepp, we went there on Christmas Day). So we walked in and found a few kids running around and a few adults sitting on a stage, the place currently “occupied” by the christmas tree. We asked them for Bob. Nobody seemed surprised that we just walked in …

The view was stunning.
Rio de Janeiro at your feet – sugar loaf at the far end!

For the next 2.5 hours – which seemed like 10 minutes – we had a very entertaining nevertheless serious conversation. I am sure in the one way or the other Bob’s network and mine will do something together – sooner or later. We shaked hands on this when we left.

The thing we talked most about was how Bob helped to change the face of this favela. As I wrote before, we were immediately caught by the stunning view. Same happened to Bob when he first came to Tavares Bastos to meet with his pregnant maid’s parents. Soon Bob was carrying 50kg bags of cement through the alleys for months on end, in order to eventually build a magnificent and highly unusual, white stucco, now 9-story high building, with huge verandas to fully enjoy these magnificent views of Rio and surroundings. He originally used the house as an atelier, art gallery, and film studio. But he kept building and building, and finally added a Bed & Breakfast and The Maze.

Bob and his Brazilian wife now employ over 30 part-time and full-time favelados, depending on season and activities, and they lodge not only tourists from all over the world, but also film (the Incredible Hulk was shot here) and TV crews, as well as well-known musicians during their monthly jazz nights. Maybe parts of WE_The_Movie will be shot here as well. More than enoght stories on how to build a better WE.

Before he could realize his dream, Bob had to join battle with the drug lords and corrupt police officers, who tyrannized the favelados, robbed their tiny shops, and killed innocent people who did not do what they wanted. One day he was able to film them in the act, and then threatened them to send the footage to the BBC for the entire world to know. He used his ties with the British government often to his advantage. When a former casino building in the area became available, he also succeeded to convince the Rio SWAT to move in. As a consequence, the cocaine trade was eventually pushed out, and the people who had previously fled to safety, as well as small businesses, slowly returned. Today it’s quite a safe place to walk around and people are really helpful. We experienced this first hand.

Bob’s “living room” which also serves as The Maze, as breakfast room and day-dreaming place is also netizens would call an incubator. He and his friends from all over the world support new ideas and help them to get started. You can find literacy classes, a samba drum band, a ballet school and a small classical orchestra for children & adolescents in the favela. At least 12 favela students have got into the Municipal Ballet School in the last 2 years, and Bob’s 16 years old neighbor Aureo just entered the Orquestra Sinfonica Brasileira, and plays double bass with the MAZE jazz band as well. As funding by government, municipality, or sponsors for these favela schools is not always forthcoming, revenues of the jazz nights often have to make up for it.

This all reads like a fairytale. And in many ways it is.
But it was also a lot of hard work. Bob’s dream didn’t come for free.
He had to see and understand terrible things.
But he had a vision. He always followed his principles and his heart.
He never followed the money.
We really met a happy man!

And this is my favorite picture: On top of the house is this huge face, an art piece by Bob, from where you have this most beautiful view of the entrances to the different rooms of his bed & breakfast.

Before I’ll leave Rio I’ll go back to The Maze and enjoy their first jazz session in 2012!

Whenever you are in Rio, go there and enjoy.
It’s not a waste of time.

Bob about Bob:
Son of a clergyman and a playwright, Bob studied fine arts in London, was sculptor on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, a war cameraman in the Middle East and a BBC TV correspondent in Brazil. During the making of more than four hundred documentaries, he broke bread with rich and poor, poets and gangsters, cowboys, ministers, thinkers, musicians, generals and mothers of the tortured. He wandered through dazzling palaces and the rubble of destroyed civilisations. Longing to return to painting, he opted to build a studio home in a Rio favela. Underneath he created a community centre with adult literacy schooling and a free pre-natal clinic followed by an art gallery.
Then in 2004, the idea of The MAZE Inn was born so that open-minded people could stay amongst the real Brazilians and feel the pulse of Rio de Janeiro. Bob is married and has four children, is preparing his next exhibition and writing his first novel.