Technology and Social Justice

Four people hold up smartphones.

Delivering healthcare to residents of impoverished neighborhoods in São Gonçalo, Brazil is difficult. Some areas have roads that are not officially recognized by the government, and many residents don’t know their addresses. 

“Here in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, we take for granted that when we Google a location or tell someone our address, it can be found easily on a map” says Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes, assistant professor of environmental analysis. 

A former Peace Corps volunteer and environmental activist, Douglass-Jaimes says that one of the solutions to improving healthcare is in his pocket. 

“A smartphone allows us to access data in communities where we think there is a mismatch between what the government records say and the information collected on the ground, which might better reflect the needs of that area and help the government allocate scarce resources.” 

This summer, Douglass-Jaimes and three students traveled to Brazil to test the accuracy and applicability of smartphones and apps (such as WhatsApp and Magpi), which will be used by the municipal ministry of health to train community health workers to conduct surveys and take GPS locations. 

The stark inequalities in urban Brazil are often reflected between formally recognized urban spaces and informal settlements, or favelas— places associated with concentrated poverty and lacking basic municipal services such as water, sanitation, trash pickup and electricity, says Douglass-Jaimes. In recent decades these urban divides have been mapped through official government bureaucracies. “

We’re interested in finding out whether this divide exists or if the administrative boundaries are wrong,” he says. “Do people’s perceptions and lived experiences in these communities have a greater meaning than the official designations?”

Douglass-Jaimes started questioning those kinds of assumptions as a researcher for an environmental justice organization in Los Angeles, where he found that official air quality measurements didn’t always reflect the reality of people who lived next to a freeway or chemical plant. 

“It’s a problem when we act as if there is a very clear divide,” says Douglass-Jaimes, whose diverse interests in mapping, technology and social justice continued through his doctoral and post-doctoral work at UC Berkeley and with a research group in Niterói, Brazil, responding to the Zika outbreak. 

His current collaboration with the municipal ministry of health of São Gonçalo and the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Niterói, Brazil, has prompted Douglass-Jaimes and his student researchers to think about other ways technology could improve the lives of both patients and workers. 

“I love technologies,” he says. “There’s a bit of democratization of those tools because, as technologies have gotten cheaper and smaller, more and more people are able to get their hands on them. It fascinates me that we can use these tools to actually help address questions of injustice. My goal in life is to highlight those disparities and to make it very obvious and very clear to policymakers where and when they need to address these concerns.”