Rio de Janeiro’s Control Room Monitors the City Like Big Brother

Rio de Janeiro has set up the world’s largest urban-monitoring system.


The biggest surveillance screen in Latin America spans 860 square feet in a new building called the Ops Center that most residents of Rio de Janeiro don’t even know exists.

But Rio knows that they exist, and the people who run this city are now watching these residents in a way that’s never been tried before, from a huge, state-of-the-art space known simply as the Control Room.

80 interchangeable digital panels project live video feeds from 450 cameras and three helicopters, plus a dizzying array of tricked-out Google Maps of schools and hospitals, car accidents with real-time traffic to the nearest hospital, and close to 10,000 GPS-tracked buses and ambulances. There are temperature, wind, humidity, and air quality maps. Heat maps of dengue fever outbreaks. Crisis-mode maps of high-risk landslide zones. On one map, graphic simulations predict tomorrow’s weather within a 150-mile radius.

Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in one of the world’s fastest-emerging economies, has created a survellience system that makes Big Brother live up to its name. Another 30,000 meters of fiber-optic cables criss-cross another 300 LCD screens spread over 100 rooms in the Ops Center. A biometric finger swipe grants access to the Crisis Room, where Cisco Telepresence terminals link to the Civil Defense and the mayor’s house.

This is a flamboyant city, and municipal operations are no exception. At the Ops Center, government officials don’t spy on terrorists or track down drug traffickers. They’re more concerned with the weather—and with good reason. Torrential downpours in April of 2010 shut the city down for 36 hours and left over 250 dead and 10,000 homeless. The storm slipped in below Rio’s meteorological radar, leaving the city unprepared and officials without a place to monitor and manage the crisis.

Mayor Eduardo Paes, a young Brazilian with a Bloombergian affection for his iPad, vowed not to repeat the tragedy on his watch, so he bought a new radar and broke ground on a weather crisis center that quickly grew into something much bigger.

If a crisis is best managed with all the data and decision-makers under one roof, Paes reasoned, why not gather everyone together to oversee the city’s day-to-day functions? Or even a big, citywide event that involves complicated logistics? And why not have it ready by New Year’s Eve, in time for the IOC’s visit to check on Rio’s progress as it prepares to host the 2016 Summer Olympics?

Critics say Rio isn’t ready to host two of the biggest sports events on the planet: the World Cup in 2014, and the Olympics two years after that. They cite violence and infrastructure delays. But those critics overlook a fundamental characteristic of carioca culture: Rio knows how to put on a show, and the bigger the better. This year alone Rio has hosted three of the biggest parties on the planet, coordinating everything from event security to traffic diversion from the omniscient eye of the new Control Room.

First, the biggest New Year’s party on earth, followed by the biggest trash cleanup the world has ever seen. Then Carnaval, the biggest block party, with close to 500 parades and 5 million participants. Sanitary operations alone required 7,400 Port-a-Potties that collected the equivalent of three Olympic-size pools of pee. A Paul McCartney show for 45,000 fans and the Military World Games followed. And this week Rio welcomes some 700,000 people to the largest music festival in the world, Rock in Rio, at the same site that will host the Olympic Games.

If the Ops Center is a preview of the show to come, Rio will be ready, albeit perhaps at the last minute. The entire thing (including the building) was built from scratch in four months with only four engineers and was ready four days ahead of schedule. (The IOC was pleased.)

“It’s like we took off without knowing how everything works,” says Ops Center Chief Technology Officer Alexandre Cardeman, “and we’re learning to fix it mid-flight.” 400 government workers rotate in three daily shifts to keep the Ops Center running 24 hours a day, and the system hasn’t shut down once since take-off.

The Ops Center unites 70 heads of city departments, from the health system to the Civil Defense, housing, tourism, environment, education, water, energy, roads, bridges and street signals under the omnipresent glow of LED lights. “Nowhere else do you have the guy in charge of the train system working with everyone else in the same room,” Cardeman says. “So when there’s a car accident, we can zoom in and read the license plate, we can already see where the closest Municipal Guard is, start to divert traffic and alert the nearest ambulance by GPS, because we’re all integrated.”

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Integrating data takes engineers, but integrating people and processes across 70 departments takes time, says Cardeman. They’ve had plenty of practice so far: countless car and bus accidents, a collapsed pedestrian overpass, a fire at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and a shooter that left twelve dead at an elementary school earlier this year.

Then there’s the rain. Rio is halfway through an aggressive schedule to install sirens and roll out evacuation drills for 15,000 families in sixty high-risk communities by the year’s end. When a big storm hit this April, they saw it coming, and mapped its trajectory against neighborhoods at high-risk of landslides. They sounded the alarm for the first time in eleven communities that were equipped with sirens, though it had not had any evacuation drills.

This time, there were no fatalities, although it was close call for a resident named Alan in the Morro da Formiga favela. The siren woke him up but he didn’t want to leave the house, so he moved to his living room, just in time to watch a mudslide wipe out his bedroom. (When Formiga had its evacuation drill two months later, Alan filmed a rap video encouraging his neighbors to respect the siren.)

Installing sirens is only half the battle. Educating people on why they should leave their houses is a big challenge, says Marcio Motta, the Municipal Subsecretary of Civil Defense leading the evacuation plans. I’ve joined him for a drill in the Mangueira favela, home to one of the oldest samba schools in Rio, overlooking the Maracana stadium.

Evacuation teams and volunteers go door-to-door to pick up the deaf or elderly and guide residents to well-marked meeting points equipped with emergency supplies and beds. Today they’re passing out t-shirts as extra incentive for residents to participate on an otherwise sleepy Sunday morning.

Emergency SMS is only the beginning. City officials just greenlit the Rio DataMine project to release city data to app developers. Rio Chief Digital Officer Pedro Peracio says they’ve already shared data with a tourism app called MyCityWay to make a Rio city tour. “The question is, will this to be relevant to our citizens? Is it going to improve their daily life?” Peracio asks. “If yes, we’ll release our data.”

What about the hundreds of live video feeds? Share them, too. Back at the Ops Center, media conglomerate O Globo (perhaps inspired by broadcasting 11 seasons of Big Brother Brazil) has installed a camera to remotely watch the surveillance screen, and can broadcast what they see straight to TV.

And in November, the city will unveil an online version of the Control Room to the public, which will live-stream all of its video feeds (850 by year’s end), provide weather summaries, sort traffic data by neighborhood and transit route, and kick into crisis mode when the need arises.

They’re already experimenting with allowing citizens to pass information back to the grid. For Carnaval, they hired a someone to follow different street parades on foot and pass video and route tracking back to the Control Room. By 2014, Ops Center CTO Cardeman envisions a surveillance screen with so much video that it can zoom into a StreetView of video feeds instead of fixed imagery.

For city surveillance, it is totally unprecedented. For a city used to hosting mega-events for millions of people, it’s a natural extension of their audience.

One thing is for certain. When tourists pour into town in 2014, Rio will be watching.