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Instructor Teaches Students To 'Learn To Program Or Be Programmed' In Brazil


Now a story about people using coding to find a way through political polarization. This is in Brazil, where civic hackathons have become popular. Reporter Catherine Osborn went to a hackathon in Rio de Janeiro.

CATHERINE OSBORN, BYLINE: It's a Saturday morning on Rio's north side, and a small museum auditorium is packed with a hundred people ranging from teens to people in their 50s and their computers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: They're here for a free event called Hacking Public Data with Python. The organizers had to close applications early when a thousand people signed up for a hundred spots. They read each application looking for people who are likely to make a social impact, according to teacher Fernando Masanori.

FERNANDO MASANORI: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: He said chosen participants included researchers on health and public security, the director of a community newspaper from a low-income neighborhood and staffers from city council and federal prosecutors' offices.

MASANORI: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: Masanori has given 25 of these workshops across Brazil in the past six months through the nonprofit School of Data. Applications have consistently overflowed. Participants like lawyer and water researcher Adriana Bocaiuva say that's because of coding's potential to address a well-known but unsolved problem with government information in Brazil.

ADRIANA BOCAIUVA: Sometimes it's given out in a way that it's just for compliance with the law but not really informing about what it's supposed to inform.

OSBORN: Bocaiuva plans to use the coding language Python to find out how money from people's water bills is spent by Rio's water utility. The funds are supposed to improve basic sanitation around Rio's bay, but they're getting spent somewhere else along the way.

BOCAIUVA: If we don't have enough information we cannot have the politicians doing what they're supposed to do.

OSBORN: Masanori the teacher says he views the high interest in deciphering public data as a reaction to a lack of qualified government officials in Brazil. He's hoping to build a talent pipeline so these skills will eventually reach the top ranks of media and public office. But first, the basics.

MASANORI: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: Masanori, in bright, blue-rimmed glasses and red sneakers, leads the group through a starter sample problem.

MASANORI: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: They calculate money spent on Brazil's World Cup stadiums. You can tell Masanori loves teaching. He's cracking jokes and beaming with delight at the code from his computer projected against the museum wall.

MASANORI: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: "Either learn to program or be programmed," he tells his students. With this mantra he wants them to take control of their digital lives to avoid surveillance and being hacked themselves. In the afternoon, the group worked through a more complicated calculation. The students help Masanori at some points, and there are plenty of pauses for questions to be answered.

Masanori's workshops aren't the only civic hacking going on in Brazil these days. Eight Brazilians have created a robot that uses data from Twitter to flag possibly illegal spending by lawmakers, and a crowdfunded Hacker Bus travels around Brazil's countryside running workshops explaining Congress and the courts.

PEDRO ZENO: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORN: Pedro Zeno, who participated in the Rio hackathon, says these initiatives show Brazilians are ready to innovate in order to clean up their politics. That cleanup is a massive task. Zeno and his civic hackers say Brazil's federal anti-corruption probes that made headlines in recent years are only part of the solution. They say the rest lies with citizens and that coding can boost their power. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborn in Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORO Y MOI SONG, "STILL SOUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.