Adventures at home, abroad, and online

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Petra and Wadi Rum

After a week in Israel, we crossed the border in Aqaba and got a taxi up to Petra. I’ve been here twice before, and this time I was determined to see something new.


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:

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.

La Cite des MortsCity of the Dead

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.

Le Ballon Rouge
Roundtable Discussions
Jeff's mapping workshop

Mobile Data Collection for Social Action

At the Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action in Iraq and the Middle East conference.

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…

Twitter stream!

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.

Wadi Rum

To finish off our epic journey, we spent a day and night in the breathtaking desert landscape at Wadi Rum. We started with a short camel ride from the village to Lawrence Spring, aided by two young Bedouin boys. Then our guide Saleh picked us up with his 4×4, and we continued the rest of the way by modern conveyance. We visited natural rock bridges, ancient Nabatean petroglyphs, twisting siqs and huge sand dunes. We had two excellent home cooked meals, and watched from sunset to moonrise at his tent. For the evening we were joined by a French family, three small cats, and their innumerable fleas. No camel spiders, though.

Sweaty and Tired
Wadi Rum Panorama
Land Cruisin'
Desert Driving
Ruth sur Camel

We arrived back in Bethlehem after sixteen hours of travel, ready for a shower and a real bed. Jared did not disappoint.

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