Adventures at home, abroad, and online

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Center for Future Civic Media

Government 2.0

Listened to speaker after speaker at the O’Reilly Government 2.0 Summit, and got a sense of both where things are going right, and just how much further we have to go. Tim defines gov2.0 as providing a platform, the provider of data and services, but letting “the market” (both commercial and non-commercial) building the innovative apps we’ve come to expect. This is dandy in theory, and and the Sunlight Foundation are nice examples of it in practice.

However, the fact that data is “open” doesn’t mean it’s really usable. Just putting up a website with a set of PDF files isn’t enough. It’s like the interstellar bypass plans in the Hitchhiker’s Guide that was ” on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘beware of the leopard’.”

Adrian Holovaty reiterated that sites will take what they can get, scraping if they have to, but that we drastically prefer “diffs to dumps”, and that PDF is “the devil’s spawn.” I doubt the Adobe representatives in the audience were pleased at that.

John Markoff of the New York Times asked the pointed question: how do we ensure that these platforms enable liberation not control? Having a common platform isn’t helpful if it’s locked down and doesn’t interoperate.

While many of the presentations were very good, “death by slideshow” still ensued. Vint Cerf, chief architect of the internet, noted that “Power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” Many of the shown projects fell into the “dots on a map” paradigm or “open it and they will come” fallacies. Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus, asked for more “apps that matter, not just more bus trackers.” How apropos; I’m working on it, Mitch.

On Research

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…

Ni’lin Protest

The aforementioned adventure with Jared was going to the weekly protest in the village of Ni’lin. The wall passes through their olive groves, and nearby settlements cut them off from 40% of their land. The protest followed Friday prayers in the mosque, and then several hundred people walked to the wall. Or, as close as the Israeli army would let us. Here is a short movie of the march.

First teargas volley
IDF Prepares to meet us

The first volley of teargas came quickly. For ten seconds, I thought “what’s the big deal?” And then it hit. Eyes watering, coughing, sputtering, I ran through the prickly bushes, over loose stone fences, back to relative safety. I was wearing a press vest with ceramic inserts for impact protection. But people have been killed here, including children and internationals. They didn’t fire rubber bullets this time, only teargas, and that was enough for me.

Brave shebab

We moved along the path of the wall, through the olive groves that the people are set on defending from the encroaching settlement. The soldiers followed, firing volleys from two flanks, pushing us up a hill and away from the wall. The wind was in our favor, and I wasn’t gassed again as badly. The shebab who moved forward to throw stones were used to it, and walked defiantly through clouds with only a scarf around their face. I’ll definitely send Jared my gas mask when I get back home; he’ll get more use out of it here than in Boston.

Teargas in the Olive Groves

We walked back to the town through the olive groves. Last time Jared was here, the army invaded the town, and the violence continued for hours. This time at least, it wound down without serious incident. We hailed a taxi and went back to Ramallah to write, reflect, and shower. The shebab of Ni’lin will be back next week, and so will the army.

Here is Jared’s article for Ma’an, fresh off the wire: Israeli soldiers crack down on Ni’lin protesters.

Update, 7/19: International Solidarity Movement released this video of the protest. You can see Jared and me wearing black press vests running from a huge volley of teargas around 1:55.


Went on a tour with the observers from the Temporary International Presence in Hebron. Rosa managed to get us in, as she used to work for the Danish Representative Office in Ramallah, and the observers are mostly Scandinavian. How very diplomatic of them…

"Greater Israel"

The TIPH was created in 1997 as an addendum to the Oslo Process, and so has been temporary for over twelve years, with no sign of it ceasing to be necessary. Hebron is perhaps the mostly starkly divided city in the West Bank, home to 150,000 Palestinians and 530 settlers. The modern settlement was founded by Moshe Levinger and his wife Miriam; to whom I don’t think I am directly related, but which nonetheless colored my experience.The settlers are explicitly ideological, and espouse the goal of establishing “Eretz Israel” from the Nile to the Euphrates, with violence as an acceptable means. They occupy an area in the heart of the old city, near the Abraham Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs. Violence has gone both ways, with a massacre of 67 Jews in 1929, the killing of six yeshiva students in 1980, and ongoing violence by settlers against the local community. In December 2008, after being forcibly removed from Beit Hashalom, a building they claim to have legally purchased despite the disagreement of the Israeli high court, settlers went on a rampage of Palestinian shops, shooting one man.

Settler Kid
Screen to protect Souq from Settlers

To me, the more insidious violence is the everyday interaction, not the massacres. The old city souq is covered with protective wire to shield the Palestinian shoppers from thrown stones and bottles, although it cannot stop dirty water or urine. As I was walking through taking pictures, a young boy spit at me from several stories up, missing by inches. His aim indicated significant practice.

Settler girl with big gun
Jewish Star on Palestinian shops

Palestinians are forbidden from using several streets by the settlements, separating children from a school. TIPH observers walk every morning with them for protection. On this road, I saw a young woman nonchalantly carrying a very large automatic weapon. When I asked our guide whether a permit was required for such a gun, she replied “I’ll bet she knows how to use it.” The graffiti covering Palestinian shops and schools shows a new use of the Star of David. From its use to identify Jews in the Holocaust, it is now for these people a symbol of nationalism, and a marking of a different kind.

I had been to Hebron before with Jared and Jenna last summer, and we walked around the settlement area some. But being there with the international observers and hearing their assessment was a whole different experience. The souq was nearly empty, perhaps because it was a Friday, but it lacked much of the vibrancy I remember last year. We did avoid having any weapons pointed directly at us, as we had in the Freedom Cafe last summer. That much was a relief. I can’t imagine living in that tense of a situation, as a settler, Palestinian, or international observer. Just being there for a few hours was enough, and left me with lots to think through.

A Day of Cultural Discontinuities

I met a friend of a friend from the internet today to do some cross-border mapping. We started in the Old City, where she hadn’t seen, getting suitably caffeinated for the walk to come. I took her to Shufat camp, as it’s not currently well mapped in the OSM dataset, and it’s a profoundly different place than Jerusalem, despite being less than 10 miles away. The change from Jewish West Jerusalem to Arab East, and then to the camp itself, is really striking. Language, religion, politics, and government services all shift over a short distance. We talked about the discontinuity as we walked around gathering road and point data.

Ein Kerem Panorama

Then we did a total turn around, and went to the “artists colony” at Ein Kerem. The tranquility of the lush valley hides an ugly past. It was an arab village that was “abandoned” in 1948, or so a resident said, making sure to point out that there wasn’t a massacre here as there was at Deir Yassin only a few miles north. But whether or not there was physical violence, people did not leave these beautiful houses without reason. The very reason the town has so much charm, and is now becoming trendy, is due to the vanished occupants. Those same families now live in places like Shufat, so far from their old homes.

Temple Mount
Herodian column

After that jarring experience, we decided to go for the full Zionist kick at the Western Wall tunnels. She had another friend who met us there, and we were wowed by the multimedia-archaeological spectacle. The tour guide expounded on the glory of King Herod’s engineering feat: leveling the top of Mt Moriah, the center of creation and the spot where Abraham prepared his son for sacrifice, and building upon it a glorious temple. The tunnel follows the western retaining wall of the temple mount, which is far longer than the small “wailing” section reveals. There are some massive stones down there, bigger than those used in the pyramids. Although, it was built 2000 years after Giza with Roman techniques, so let’s not get too excited.

Damascus Gate
Qalandia backup

I bid my new friend adieu as she went to the airport, and I headed back to Ramallah. There was a long wait at the checkpoint while the rush hour traffic cleared. There’s no actual check going out of Israel proper into the West Bank, but there was a backup nonetheless. Went out for drinks with other internationals, and discussed the relative dependence of Palestine on NGO funding over many rounds of Taybeh beer. The taste of the revolution, indeed.

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