Rio Goes High-Tech, With An Eye Toward Olympics, World Cup : Parallels New technology is changing the way cities are run, with cutting-edge urban innovations around the globe. Sprawling, chaotic Rio de Janeiro has built a state-of-the-art operations center as it gears up for two major events.

Rio Goes High-Tech, With An Eye Toward Olympics, World Cup

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And this week, we begin a new series from the NPR Cities Project.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Develop it into a world-class city.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If other cities can do it, we can do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This whole beauty in space from technology.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Second floor. Technology.

SIEGEL: We're reporting on urban innovation in the 21st century, how cities are striving to use technology to become more efficient, more coordinated in all manners of ways. And today, we go to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is standing by. Hello, Lulu.


SIEGEL: And tell us about the challenges facing Rio.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a city with a whole host of issues. It's a tourist hub. Only in the next few months, there will be two mega events: the visit of Pope Francis and the soccer tournament, the Confederations Cup. In the next two years, it will be hosting the World Cup and the Olympics.

Add to that the millions of residents who live here from all social classes - from the shantytowns perched on the cliffs above me, to the glittering apartment blocks by the beach - and you have a vibrant, but a really difficult city to manage.

SIEGEL: And how has Rio done that in the digital age?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, picture mission control at NASA and how it ran nearly every aspect of the flight of a space shuttle, for example. Now imagine applying that logic to running a city. You can just really envision the Operation Center here in the city of Rio. I'm standing outside it right now, and earlier, I got a chance to meet the director of this ambitious operation.

PEDRO JUNQUEIRA: My name is Pedro Junqueira. I'm the chief executive officer of the Centro de Operacion du Rio.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are standing in front of a huge bank of screens, in the middle of which is a glowing map that changes focus depending on what the dozens of white jump-suited controllers are looking at. This is Rio in real time.

JUNQUEIRA: This whole building is based on technology and integration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The brainchild of the city mayor, Junqueira says the Rio Operations Center is unique, custom-built by IBM to act as a kind of master control for the city. The workers here are getting live streaming data from the ground and the sky.

JUNQUEIRA: We have here almost 600 cameras, people looking at the radar, at satellites, and seeing if it's going to rain or - heavy or not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rain is a particular concern in Rio, where shantytowns are built into the hills. In fact, a few years ago, one deadly storm inspired the mayor to commission the Operations Center. Now, in the most vulnerable areas, alarms sound, telling people when they have to evacuate, and it's all managed from here.

JUNQUEIRA: We get to know what's happening faster, and we can put our teams on the street to respond faster.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Junqueira says it's not just the technology. What is really revolutionary is having a single place where over 30 agencies work together. Before, he explains, if there was a crisis, the only way to get everyone notified was to work the phones. But now, he says, it's pretty seamless.

JUNQUEIRA: We have the police. We have the traffic engineer. We have an agency that knows everything about mountains in this area. We have the gas company, the light company, all of them together, here. If I pick up the microphone and pronounce once what's happening, all of them, they know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they can see it. On the screens, there are images of traffic-clogged streets, construction sites, the subway system, anything that may cause a potential problem.

Another one of the key components is the media. There is a group assigned to covering social media sites to see what's going on in the city. But more traditional networks have a dedicated space here, too, in a press box perched right above the main floor. And it's made the city operations more accountable, transparent and effective, say journalists. Alexandre Alves works for Radio O Dia.

ALEXANDRE ALVES: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Before, we used to have to get information from Twitter, for example. And now at the Operations Center, you can see the situation firsthand, see the cause, how many people are affected, what hospital they are being taken to, all this in one place in a more accurate way, he says.

What that means is that the wider public is also being better informed. They'll know, for example, what roads have been closed due to an accident, and they can avoid that stretch, making it easier for rescue workers to do their jobs. Junqueira says the Operations Center has become vital to the way the city is now managed.

JUNQUEIRA: Imagine the World Cup, the pope's event in the middle of the year, the Olympic Games, 2016. Sometimes I think it would be impossible to run the city as big as Rio, with so many things changing, without a place like this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's pretty quiet here inside the Operations Center, so it's hard to get a sense of just how complicated and vast the city really is. To do that, you have to step outside, as I'm doing now, and go to the scene of a recent disaster on the streets of Rio.

VICENTE ANTONIA DA CRUZ: (Through translator) I was inside the building when I saw some stonework falling. I ran away. There was a lot of dust. A friend of mine died there. He was running out of the building like me, but suddenly remembered his wife was still inside, and he went back to save her, and the two died.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vicente Antonia Da Cruz(ph) is a street vendor just outside a building in downtown Rio that collapsed recently. It was the first real test of the Operations Center.

Along with Da Silva's(ph) friends, another 15 people died in the accident, but it could have been much worse, say city officials. The system inside the center works on a series of alerts. A green light says everything is running normally. On that day, the light was flashing red, meaning it was all hands on deck.

When they found out what had happened, the center immediately coordinated the closure of streets, the evacuation of the wounded to the area's hospitals, the deployment of rescue workers. Luis Antonio Coelho(ph) operates a newsstand nearby the collapsed building. He says the city's response was good.

LUIS ANTONIO COELHO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was very fast, he says. Help came very soon. Within 10 to 15 minutes, the area was blocked off, he says.

COELHO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But when I ask him about the Operations Center, he shrugs and says he's never heard of it.

COELHO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's one of the strange things about the use of technology in cities. Most people aren't really aware of it. A lot of the people that I've spoken to here don't even know what the Center of Operations is or what it does. But they felt the effects of it in small and big ways, as we saw when this building collapsed here. This is Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on the Avenida Treze de Maio in Rio de Janeiro.

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