Customer Story

Drone Mapping For Impoverished Communities

September 23, 2019




homes built


communities helped

Photo credit: Techo

In Latin America, with economic inequality on the rise, more and more families are driven into poverty. According to a report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), 84 million Latin Americans live on or below the poverty line, with a staggering 63 million living in conditions characterized as “extreme poverty,” the highest that number has been in over a decade. One of the most serious consequences of these levels of poverty is the inability to access decent housing: in fact, according to UN-Habitat, as recently as 2014, almost 105 million people lived in slums in Latin America and the Caribbean region.

While governments scramble to provide sufficient aid and properly gauge how to help these impoverished communities, one nonprofit turned to DroneDeploy's philanthropic branch,, to accurately address how to help. Techo, a nonprofit organization geared at tackling extreme poverty, provides youth volunteer services across all of Latin America, including 20 communities in São Paulo, Brazil alone. “What DroneDeploy helps us do is provide visibility to the urban poor that live in these settlements,” says Vitor Pessoa Colombo, Mapping Coordinator for Techo in São Paulo. “Together, we can bring focus to those who previously had little or no visibility.”

Community in Western São Paulo, Brazil

Facing The Challenge

People living in these “informal” human settlements usually have limited or no access to adequate housing, education, clean water, sanitation, or other basic services. As a result, they are regularly exposed to cold, rain, dirt, and pollution, which can lead to a variety of health problems. These damaging effects make it considerably harder to escape poverty, as daily life and working capacity are deeply impacted by such conditions.

Municipalities work to curb these effects, but, many times, their efforts fall short. This can be attributed in large part to inaccurate land assessments and a gross underestimation of census numbers. Techo, however, found by using DroneDeploy they could not only better assess the number of families living in impoverished settlements, but could adequately map and pinpoint the risk areas associated with these settlements.

Portelinha Community in São Paulo

Finding Solutions

Across all Latin American countries, Brazil is the most unequal in terms of income distribution. Within the last year, 2 million more Brazilians slipped into extreme poverty, raising the total number to over 15 million people. Such income inequality is reflected spatially by the configurations of the urban form: auto-constructed human settlements, resulting from extra-legal processes of land occupation, often lacking basic public services, are ubiquitous in the fringes of Brazilian cities, highlighting the social divide that plagues the country.

In the metropolitan area of São Paulo, where the pilot project between DroneDeploy and Techo is taking place, these human settlements (so-called “favelas”) were home to over 2 million people in 2010, according to the last census conducted by the National Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

São Paulo Metropolitan Area

Techo seeks to build a fair, integrated, and poverty-free society by constructing transitional housing in impoverished areas while implementing a number of social inclusion programs. This housing and community development is the means by which they seek to fulfill their mission: to build a fair, integrated and poverty-free society. The nonprofit targets families who lack a proper home and have no access to basic services, such as clean water, electricity, and sewerage. In order to provide services to these communities, though, Techo needs to know how many people are living across these settlements. This can be quite challenging, as census datasets are frequently underestimated and, in some cases, the very existence of these human settlements is ignored or omitted from public records altogether.

Using DroneDeploy, Techo was able to correctly map and count the total number of families, providing the basic information needed to start any urban upgrading project. In one São Paulo community, for example, the municipality estimated there to be 250 families living in the area. As it turned out, there were actually over 520 families, over double the original assessment.

If we want to bring fresh water to a settlement, we need to know exactly how many people are there. If the municipalities think there are 250 families there, but there are actually 500, we won’t have enough water for everyone.

Vitor Pessoa Colombo picture

Vitor Pessoa Colombo, Mapping Coordinator, Techo

Moreover, Techo found these quantitative census problems impacted things beyond just basic sanitation infrastructures. For instance, schools also need accurate demographic data to provide enough classes for all the children in these communities. In order to assess the complex housing issues affecting countries such as Brazil, there is an urgent need to bridge the informational gap between the “informal” and the “formal” parts of the city. “Now, thanks to drone technology and access to DroneDeploy, we can be much more precise in our work to aid these communities,” says Colombo. “This technology pushed our work to another level.”

Mapped Community of Pedra Branca

Using DroneDeploy, Techo can also better identify families living in risk areas. In São Paulo, for instance, many homes in low-income settlements are at risk due to flooding or land erosion. These risks, though, aren’t always quantifiable without the use of drone technology. “The quality of the images that we got from DroneDeploy not only allowed us to count the number of shacks in these communities, but it allowed us to map the perimeter of these shacks and to give them relatively precise geographic coordinates," Colombo said.

Techo uses DroneDeploy to create orthomosaics composed of aerial photos of the informal communities. From there, Techo can bring the data into a geographic information system (GIS) and create boundaries around individual homes. By working with high-resolution raster and vector data - rather than in estimates - Techo’s mapping team in São Paulo can accurately measure which shacks were at higher risk to flood or erosion. In May 2019, a mapping campaign in a community located in the eastern part of the city identified 118 families living in areas exposed to geological risk. From there, Techo could initiate a plan to relocate these families to safer locations by building them quality transitional homes.

A Path to the Future

Techo continues to invest in families' quality of life

More work still needs to be done, but Techo has already risen to the challenge of providing aid to the impoverished. Above all, the nonprofit has engaged in a transnational effort to give visibility and voice to those who have been marginalized by unequal socio-economic and urban development. It has sensitized different sectors of society in order to tackle poverty at different levels: from localized community actions to large scale, institutional measures that include public policies.

The joint effort between Techo and DroneDeploy provides a prime example of how “bottom-up” participatory initiatives can complement “top-down” institutional resources to tackle the informational gap in informal human settlements. Considering the rapid democratization of information and communication technologies - as well as the increased access to geotechnologies like virtual globes and drone imagery - geographic information becomes increasingly dynamic and open for citizen participation. Using drones and DroneDeploy, Techo is afforded more transparent and accurate data on cities and their inhabitants, allowing them to explore how citizen engagement can go beyond charity, bringing about positive, structural changes in society and urban governance.

Drones For Good

Want to become a partner? Learn more.

With the launch of, DroneDeploy is seeking to partner with even more organizations committed to creating a better future for people and communities across our planet. By visiting the new website and sharing their stories, individuals and organizations across the globe will have the chance to partner with DroneDeploy to achieve our shared purpose.

Fill out an application for your organization if you would like to team up with DroneDeploy and use drones for good.

About the Author

Getting started is simple. Request a demo today.