(Photo: Ahron de Leeuw)
It's a common English "truism" that when a place is considered important, it is "put on the map." By that definition, the people of Gaza have been in limbo for a long time. One case in point is that when Gazans complete the application for a US visa, they are forced to select "Israel" as their place of birth; no "Palestine" or "Gaza Strip" option exists. Another indicator of the "deligitmization" of the Gaza Strip in particular is the fact that no map exists that documents and guides visitors to the labyrinthine streets and points of interest that structure daily life here. That is, until now.
If Ashraf Mohammed Hamad gets the funding he is seeking, he will soon print the first "tourist" map of Gaza City - a map that can perhaps be made available in the one souvenir shop in town (along with the "world's largest prison" coffee mug) as well as given to the estimated 200-300 internationals present in the Strip at any one time. The concept of a tourist map - including points of cultural interest as well as street names - seems a bit strange to some, making funding a bit hard to come by. After all, despite the beauty of Gaza's shoreline, the four-year-long Israeli blockade of the Strip makes just getting into (or out of) the enclave a test of persistence and fortitude - if it's possible at all.
Nonetheless, as Hamad points out, aid workers often stay for weeks or months and will hopefully want to see more of Gaza than the facility in which they work (although there is a bit of a "green zone" feel here sometimes, with UN personnel racing around in white cars and most foreigners taking the best apartments by the water). In addition, might there not be one day when the siege comes to an end and tourists from Egypt etc. once again return to enjoy the beaches and rural hamlets with gardens of papayas, lemons and dates?
"After the Israeli war on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, a lot of foreign aid workers started coming to help rebuild," says Hamad, coordinator of the E.Work Unit at Gaza City's University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS). "But so many of the people with international NGOs just stayed on the coast, and weren't going east or, to see the old part of Gaza City. Gaza may be a war zone, but we have a history and sights to see as well."
The effort to more accurately and completely "map" Gaza actually started shortly after the December 27, 2008, invasion by Israel. Quickly recognizing that relief workers would need detailed geographical information in order to find and help the thousands of families traumatized by the massive assault, mapping experts from around the world created "Wikiproject Gaza Strip" - an online "asset register" of roads, buildings and vital community infrastructure - including schools, hospitals, mosques etc. Although some maps generated by authorities such as the United Nations, Palestinian government and international media already existed, Mikel Maron - the freelance leader of the online mapping effort - explains that "the presumption that these authorities have complete, accurate, consistent and verified data is unfortunately incorrect. They do a fantastic job, and their maps serve many useful purposes. But for one example, the road data from the European Commission that served as the basis for all the UN maps was missing road names, and at even a quick look had inaccuracies. Plus, all of these sources disagreed with each other on place names and locations."
The wikiproject also was designed to overcome copyright and licensing issues that prevented sharing among the various entities that had created the other maps. To establish a new database that could be used by any and all interested parties, the project relied on OpenStreetMap, an online project rather like Wikipedia dedicated to creating a free, editable map of the entire world using GPS devices, aerial photography, and other open sources.
"It's amazing what's possible when discussion and sharing happens in an open transparent environment," says Maron, a freelance Web developer who specializes in geographic and location-focused applications, ecological simulations and disaster-response software.
At first, there were some objections to the idea of creating a map/database of the Gaza Strip that is both comprehensive and open to everyone. Some individuals were worried that the information would only help Israel identify bombing targets etc. Maron responded in a blog post that "this is honestly one of the most preposterous and disheartening things I hear. I guess such paranoia is an understandable response given the situation, but the reality is that the Israeli military has access to much better intelligence and imagery than we'd ever have. Remember, they fly drones over Gaza! Gazans have nothing to gain by trying to keep secrets; the asymmetry of that game is overwhelmingly not in their favor."
Maron's "remote community" started the mapping project using existing imagery and eyewitness reports from bloggers etc. But the project quickly got to the point when on-the-ground mappers were required. After the Israeli invasion ended on January 18 and conditions were safer, an NGO called JumpStart International - which focuses on generating local employment - funded a project to train Gazan university graduates in the art of cartography and produce a complete, public-domain map of all roads and other points of interest that define the Gaza Strip. And that's when Hammad entered the picture.
Hamad's E.Work Unit provides UCAS graduates gainful employment with clients in other countries, particularly in the Gulf states, through projects that rely on the Internet such as web site design, translation and secretarial work. In June 2009, with funds and 12 GPS (global positioning system) units donated by Jumpstart, Hamad's engineering graduates were trained, then sent out to collect raw "traces" (x and y coordinates) across the entire Gaza Strip. By September, all roads and more than 4,000 points of interest were charted, then entered into OpenStreetMap.
"Roads are important, but life in Gaza is defined even more by the local hospitals, mosques and businesses," explains Hamad. "To be relevant to people's lives, a map has to include those as well."
For instance, one location on the map is a tiny, family-owned store called "Mr. Kazim Ice Cream," which was the first shop to offer homemade ice cream in the Strip when it opened about 50 years ago. Although competitors entered the market about five years ago, "Kazim" remains a name that is so well known that taxi drivers throughout the Strip use it as a reference point.
Hamad's team faced a challenge, however, when labeling the streets. Although most of the streets in Gaza City now at least have a name (unlike many communities outside, such as the refugee camps ), what people call them often differs from what appears on official signs. For instance, Gamal Abdel Nasser St. (named after the past president of Egypt who is revered for trying to unite Arabs throughout the region) is more commonly called Thalatheny St., after the extended family who has longed lived there. The mappers chose the official name, but many taxi drivers couldn't recognize it.
Hamad says that using the database that now exists, printed maps could be made for all of the Gaza Strip, but for now he is focusing on Gaza City, the headquarters for the government as well as the majority of the NGOs. And in the spirit of OpenStreetMap, he wants to give the map away, rather than selling it. "Information is only truly powerful when everyone has access to it," he explains.