On the drive from Amman to Jerusalem, we shared a taxi with Jacob from Souktel.
They’re the best mobile aid provider in the region, have mostly palestinian programmers, but was co-founded founded by this canadian HBS graduate. We’ve talked briefly before, but we had a several hour conversation on the complicated nature of work in this area. After arriving at Damascus Gate he left us to return to Ramallah, and we met Jared at Al-Ayed chicken restaurant.
Since it’s Jeff’s first time here, we spent the afternoon trekking around the old city. Did the standard holy sites tour: Church of the Speulchre, Western Wall, Dome of the Rock. Couldn’t actually get up to the mount because it was Friday, but did see some exuberant dancing at the Kotel plaza for the second night of Hannukkah. Then walked along the eastern edge of the wall, overlooking Silwan, a Palestinian village under threat of destruction, and the Valley of Jehosphat, where the dead shall rise when Gog and Magog battle and the Lord returns in glory. Or at least that’s what wikipedia tells me.
Jeff bought some “computers”, which are really knock-off nintendo boards from china, on the street for $20. The first immediately broke upon plugging in to the TV, but I think we can fix it when we get back to the lab. The intention is to develop educational software for this platform, perhaps using the Contiki OS, but I think he just wants to play Duck Hunt.
The morning started with a set of “peer assists”, where the assembled technical expertise was applied to specific problems. Two people from the National Democratic Institute in Lebanon presented their ideas for a project to engage youth in the upcoming Lebanese municipal elections. Because voting patterns tend to closely follow sectarian lines, the group is trying to find features that cut across these divisions. Related projects that were mentioned include:
- an analysis of anxiety and excitement expressed on Twitter before the previous election.
- The Johnson and Johnson Baby Center that links women at same stage of their pregnancy, so they can share their experiences.
- A campus-wide game of Risk played at Yale
- News aggregation and crisis response services like Reuters Emergency Service, based on Instedd’sRiff, Al Jazeera Labs mobile reporting tools, and GeoChat
- Story aggregation services like StoryCorps, UNICEF OurStories, Ushaidi and VirtualGaza.
The group eventually settled on a Facebook app with a simple hook, something like “are you excited about the election?”, that lets the developers pull the users status updates to qualitatively analyze.
The second project was on mapping the slums of Cairo and Port Said, where there are issues of determining the informal infrastructure, because they are outside public services.
Roads, as such, are small and dynamic. Crime is endemic. Police do not venture in, and when they do, the consequences can be severe. Because the negatives are so overwhelming, it was hard to focus on the potential positives. However, there were analogous experiences and stories to tell in the room.
- Similar projects have been done in Khibera, which has much more NGO support than is available in Cairo.
- The German group GTZ has done work in “informal areas”, which are apparently not as underdeveloped as Zor Zara, which I can’t even find on a map.
- It is imperative to engage the community in the mapping process, so that they feel ownership over their space and the data that represents it. Mapping for mapping’s sake is not good enough, it needs to have a “real world” impact.
- But don’t just parachute in to save the day.
The discussion ended with a call for a field trip, so that we can see the place for ourselves.
After lunch, the Iraqi contingent presented the projects they have been brainstorming, and we tried to give technical advice as best we could. Translation of language and ideas was a hurdle, but I think we both got something out of it.
Day 2 was spent without our Iraqi counterparts, so we had more technical discussions. Nadav pitched a delay tolerant network that was immediately called “data mule.” Jeff had a good crowd for his balloon and kite demonstrations, and for Cartagen as a vector mapping platform. I was in a conversation about how to incentivize participants in crowd-sourced data collection, and lessons learned from projects around the world. I also met Jacob from Souktel, who I missed connecting with when I was in Ramallah, and had an exciting discussion about ways to track settler violence. With a lot of work ahead of me, the spinning ideas and jetlag kept me up until far too late local time.
We started off by asking questions about when and where mobile or distributed data can make a difference in a rapidly rotating roundtable. Projects I’ve learned about at and through the center were helpful here, but the experience of field workers was much more instructive. Further questions on the conditions that best support gathering this data yielded some good war stories. Central issues include the technical literacy of the field workers, whether the tool is deployed on externally provided phones or “in the wild”, the tradeoff of message syntax vs cost, how to develop incentives for participation, and the privacy of messages sent to shared or village phones. This was just a taste of the experience that user deployment provides, but was enough to make this technologist’s heart sink. The real world is so much messier than the lab…
I didn’t end up giving an Ignite talk due to a mis-scheduling, but gave demos of VirtualGaza and GroundTruth to interested and engaged crowds. There was some interest in setting up similar systems in various places, and much curiosity about how I can do this political work in an academic context. A good question, and one for which I don’t have a good answer.
Members of the government of Iraq are here, and much of the discussion was initially aimed at helping them as best we can. However, they appeared to have decided that they have internal issues to address before talking to developers, so the conference took a turn for the technical. I’m a little disappointed, as part of the appeal of coming to this conference was to learn about the issues that face the people on the ground. However, I understand that the Iraqi delegation may not have other opportunities to meet and talk about their shared goals. In any case, now it’s a meeting of technical and experienced international development people, not an attempt to solve the issues facing one country.
Went out to an amazing Lebanese dinner. Katrin said she ordered the bare minimum course menu, but still the food kept coming until we had to beg them to stop. We first sat down to a table of mezze, which we failed to recognize as only appetizers. After eating more than enough, then the meat course came, followed by another meat course, and finally delectable knaffe. We rolled out stuffed, satisfied, and ready for another day.
Today marks the end of the research portion of my trip, and the beginning of a small vacation with Ruth. As such, I thought it suitable to write some thoughts on my progress so far.
Over the last three weeks I conducted ten interviews, meeting with representatives from B’Tselem, Souktel, Ma’an News Agency, The Center for Peace and Economic Cooperation, Birthright Unplugged, Waze, a conscientious objector, and various activists. I gave a talk to the Decolonizing Architecture collective in Bethlehem, gathering critical feedback on my research direction. I assisted briefly with the Voices Beyond Walls youth video project, and learned how children too are affected by the Occupation.
I rode the bus from Ramallah to Jerusalem nearly every day, subject to the same dehumanizing experience at the Qalandia checkpoint as the Palestinian population. Last week, an old woman noticed me speaking english, and upon learning that I am an American (although I haven’t been telling people that I am jewish), reiterated the importance of bring the story of their suffering to my country. During the long wait in the screening line, she said again and again that we must resist, in our hearts if not with our bodies.
I learned more about the non-technical coping mechanisms that already exist. The status of checkpoints can be relatively easily ascertained by asking taxi drivers, or by calling people who pass through them daily. The prior existence of this literal social network, and the understandable reluctance of the population to submit information that might be misused, could severely limit the utility of a mobile checkpoint reporting tool.
Other tools I had considered, a transit map and bus tracker, also have functional non-technical systems already in place. While as a tourist, I don’t know the detailed routes of the service taxi network, the men who congregate at the bus stations all do, and will tell you where to go even without much Arabic language skill. As there isn’t a defined schedule, buses simply depart when full, a full transit tracker isn’t entirely applicable. Aside from tourists, of whom there are very few, this system would duplicate the already present network, with little added functionality.
I heard again and again from Israelis that the reality of the occupation isn’t widely known by the populace, either due to a lack of information, or more likely, the pervasive dehumanization of the other side. How to tackle this issue is probably outside the scope of what I can achieve in the next year. Maybe the most valuable contribution I can make to the process is to enable some sort of empathy on both sides. Both traumatized populations are in dire need of understanding and discourse. This sounds more like a job for art and literature than science and engineering.
How exactly to do this is left as an exercise to the reader…