Support a refugee community that’s using citizen science to map, analyse, improve, green, and take charge of their environment.
About this project
This project centers on the community of inhabitants at Bourj Al Shamali, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, who I’ve been working with as they use citizen science techniques to map and analyze their overbuilt, unhealthy environment, with the goal of eventually using this information to plan and advocate for future improvement initiatives.
This Kickstarter seeks to fund two aspects of this work:
1. We seek your support for the completion and production of the map of the camp, building on several months of self-funded balloon-mapping that we have already carried out.
2. We seek to fund the remaining transportation costs associated with a pair of thrilling invitations that three of our young community mappers recently received to speak about this project at events in the United States.
Balloon-Mapping Bourj Al Shamali
When people think of a refugee camp, they typically think of tents. But Bourj Al Shamali has been there since 1948, when it was set up as a temporary solution for Palestinian refugees. It is now an overcrowded, informally constructed, concrete city, devoid of greenery. (To see a recent photo essay I published on Bourj Al Shamali, click here.)
The immediate goal of our project has thus been to collaboratively produce what will be, incredibly, the first-ever accurate, detailed map of this city that its inhabitants have ever had. Accurate maps of the camp do exist, but they are tightly held by governments and international organizations, and are not shared with camp residents. Printed and online maps are all of unusably poor resolution, sometimes even greying out the interior of the camp.
We have been using balloon mapping at Bourj Al Shamali, a “DIY aerial photography tool” developed by Public Lab, the citizen science organization, who have become great friends with us through this project (and who are responsible for one of the two invitations our three young mappers recently received; see below).
Working with a group of youths from the camp and the support of Beit Atfal Assumoud, we took thousands of aerial images of this densely inhabited settlement, navigating our balloon through impossibly narrow streets, talking our way up onto people’s rooftops, and dealing with a variety of local hazards (having the balloon shot at by idle teenagers; having our camera memory card confiscated by overzealous outsiders).
People have sometimes asked us, “Why not just use a drone?” Our simple answer is that balloon mapping builds better relationships with the inhabitants of the place you are mapping.
You have to be present in the map (as we are in many of our photos!), for you are linked to the balloon by a kind of umbilical cord.
Members of the community come out and talk to you when you’re in their streets with a big red balloon; it becomes an event, people talk, and interest builds. Certainly this was our experience at Bourj Al Shamali, where news of our latest sessions were soon showing up on camp inhabitants’ Facebook pages.
The low-tech aspect of balloon mapping also enables a wider participation of members of the community, from the physics teacher who helped us resolve camera stability problems to the garage workers who tried to patch our punctured balloon.
Balloons are also more playful and poetic. They are less associated with warfare as well.
We seek funding to complete the last stages of the mapmaking process.
At this point, we have essentially completed the outdoor balloon work. What we need your support for now is the indoor work: because community involvement is the key to this project, we still need to organize a last round of participatory workshops aimed at bringing the concerns of camp residents to bear on the map.
We also need to translate our thousands of aerial photographs into a printed, foldable, distributable paper map. For this, we want a final product that isn’t just accurate, informative, and easy to use, but also one that is visually striking and beautifully produced. To that end, we will be working with the young Lebanese designer Marwan Kaabourto produce a map that camp residents will be proud to have and share.
Our Three Young Citizen Scientists
Our work at Bourj Al Shamali has begun to attract international attention, most recently when the three young camp residents who did the most work on the balloon mapping – Amal Al Saeid(21), Mustapha Dakhloul (18), and Firas Ismail (19) – received a pair of invitations to present their work at events in the United States in November 2016.
The first invitation is to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, where they will present their work to the MEdiNA student organization for students interested in design issues in the Middle East and North Africa.
The second invitation is to the Public Lab Barnraising in Louisiana, an annual conference where they will present their work, connect with other Public Lab Organizers, and also learn about the techniques we will use in the next phase of our work, as we measure air, water, and soil quality in the camp.
Aspects of these thrilling, generous invitations have been funded by the host institutions, but not all; we still need to make a contribution towards their administrative expenses, their transportation costs, and their day-to-day expenses for parts of their North American stay. Without these contributions, we will not be able to afford their journeys. This is the second major aspect of the project for which we ask your support.
Why is this important?
This project is about a map, but it is also about much more than that.
One of the underlying stakes of the mapping initiative has been that the local camp committee is very keen to shift perceptions of their community, and of themselves, from being seen as passive beneficiaries of outside authorities, to being seen instead as partners and co-creators of the solutions to their problems.
The citizen science technologies offered by Public Lab offer an ideal instrument for such a change in the narrative, although this is the first time they have ever been used in anything like such a context. The number of refugees and refugee camps around the world is growing rapidly every year. This is a project with enormous potential to point the way towards new models for how the people living in such situations might reassert a measure of control over their own environments and futures, and improve their living conditions.
This power of this desire to change the narrative is nowhere more evident than in the case of Amal, Firas, and Mustapha. The young people of Bourj Al Shamali have very limited opportunities to contribute to their society, or for that matter to Lebanese society. When these three were given a role to play in producing something useful for their community, and to learn about citizen science and technology, they pounced on it, eagerly making the most of this chance to experiment, to solve problems creatively, and contribute new ideas.
Their trip to the US will be an invaluable, maybe even life-changing experience. It will bring them into contact with students, planners, and other citizen scientists from around the world who are interested in what they have been doing and who will be eager to share perspectives with them. Amal, Firas, and Mustapha will undoubtedly be inspired by the experience, and fortified in their growing confidence that they can be agents of change. For these three young people, learning to make a map and a garden is about opening horizons, and about developing a sense of one’s ability and one’s right to contribute actively to shaping the world.
The rewards for our backers:
The rewards for our backers will be made by us personally, to be hand-packaged and mailed to you, along with our gratitude.
A choice of one of three of our aerial balloon images.
* Discounts may be available for those wishing to purchase multiple prints. If you have questions about the rewards, or if you have a specific request that is not listed, please do not hesitate to contact me directly.
We are big fans of Zeid Hamdan and we are very grateful to him for allowing us to use his music in our video.
Risks and challenges
The political situation in Lebanon is always a concern. Obtaining U.S. visas for Amal, Firas, and Mustapha could also potentially present problems, but given the prestige of the invitations they have received, we feel confident they will be granted. And while there is no danger of our being unable to produce the rewards, the completion of our work in the camp could be postponed if the political situation worsens and I am unable to travel to the region.