ISIS destroyed Palmyra. Should we 3d print a new one?

Palmyra as it was in 2014. Image: Getty.

The destruction at the ancient city of Palmyra symbolises the suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of the terrorist group known as ISIS. Palmyra was a largely Roman city located at a desert oasis on a vital crossroad, and “one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world”. Its remarkable preservation highlighted an intermingling of cultures that today, as then, came to stand for the tolerance and multiculturalism that pre-conflict Syria was renowned for – tolerance that ISIS seeks to eradicate.

Early in the conflict, the area was heavily fortified. Roads and embankments were dug through the necropolises and the Roman walls, and the historic citadel defences were upgraded. Yet the terrorists occupied and desecrated the city from May 2015, systematically destroying monuments such as the Temple of Baalshamin, the Temple of Bel, seven tower tombs, a large Lion goddess statue and two Islamic shrines. They ransacked the museum, tortured and executing the former site director Khaled al-Asaad in search of treasure to sell. According to satellite imagery analysis the site was heavily looted throughout it all.

Now the city has been recaptured, the first damage assessments are underway, and Syrian – and international – attention is already turning to restoration. This work will be greatly aided by the Syrians who risked their lives to transport the contents of the Palmyra museum to safety. The last truck pulled out as IS arrived, with bullets whizzing past.

The Manar Monumental Arch, destroyed by IS in 2015. Image: Judith McKenzie/Manar al-Athar photo archive.

Even as they were displaced, Syrians have worked to keep a detailed memory of the city alive. Syrian artists created artworks depicting the destruction. In a Jordanian camp, refugees made miniature models of the city and other cultural sites, even measuring out the number and position of Palmyra’s columns from photographs.

The international community is also playing its part. Groups like UNOSAT, the UN’s satellite imagery analysts have used satellite imagery to monitor the damage. On the ground, Syrian-founded NGOs like APSA have linked with universities to assess the site. Groups such as NewPalmyra and Palmyra 3D Model are using the latest technology to create open-access 3D computer models from photographs.

Others have gone even further. The Million Image Database Project at the Oxford Institute for Digital Archaeology distributed cameras to volunteers across the Middle East to collect 3D photos of sites. As well as creating 3D models, they will recreate full-scale artefacts, sites, and architectural features using their own cement-based 3D printing techniques. This will start with a recreation of the arch from Palmyra’s Temple of Bel, due to be unveiled in London in April 2016.

Preserving the memory. Image: UNHCR/Christopher Herwig.

The ethics of restoration

As well as being used for research, education and enjoyment, this technology could recreate (and perhaps ultimately restore) what IS has destroyed. 3D printing can be done in any colour of shapeable material, and can be as obvious – or as unobtrusive – as desired. The group is also exploring using computer-guided tools to quickly carve their models into stone.

It wouldn’t be the first time such large-scale restoration has been undertaken. Historic central Warsaw, for example, was destroyed during World War II, and was almost completely reconstructed and is now a World Heritage site. Reconstruction is costly, but might be accomplished more quickly and cheaply using new digital techniques, showing the world that Syria values its cultural heritage.

But many argue that 3D printing fails to capture the authenticity of the original structures, amounting to little more than the Disneyfication of heritage. They also point out that the fighting is still ongoing: 370,000 Syrians are dead, millions are displaced, and perhaps 50-70 per cent of the nearby town has been destroyed. Given the pressing humanitarian needs, stabilisation alone should be the priority for now.

The Temple of Baalshamin, destroyed by IS in August 2015. Image: Judith McKenzie/Manar al-Athar photo archive.

Rebuilding also fails to redress the loss caused by the extensive looting of the site, focusing only on the dramatically destroyed monuments. Perhaps most importantly, its worth asking whether returning Palmyra exactly to its pre-conflict state denies a major chapter of its history. There needs to be a wide-ranging discussion on the priorities for the immediate future and the nature of any future reconstruction.

As has happened after previous conflicts, there may need to be a memorial as a testimony to those beheaded in the arena, or tied to columns that were detonated, or to the former site director executed in trying to protect this site that was so important to him. These stories, and many more, are a part of Palmyra’s, and Syria’s, history.


One thing is clear: while Palmyra may hold great significance to the world, the final decision should belong to those who have lived alongside it, cared for it, managed it, fought for it, and protected it for generations: the Syrian people.The Conversation

Emma Cunliffe is a research associate at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.