A U.S. college professor has been teaching Syrians in the Zaatari refugee camp to make maps of their world

The UN-run Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, 2015. Image: Getty.

I first visited the Zaatari refugee camp in early 2015. Located in northern Jordan, the camp is home to more than 80,000 Syrian refugees. I was there as part of a research study on refugee camp wireless and information infrastructure.

It’s one thing to read about refugees in the news. It’s a whole different thing to actually go visit a camp. I saw people living in metal caravans, mixed with tents and other materials to create a sense of home. Many used improvised electrical systems to keep the power going. People are rebuilding their lives to create a better future for their families and themselves, just like any of us would if faced with a similar situation.

As a geographer, I was quickly struck by how geographically complex Zaatari camp was. The camp management staff faced serious spatial challenges. By “spatial challenges,” I mean issues that any small city might face, such as keeping track of the electrical grid; understanding where people live within the camp; and locating other important resources, such as schools, mosques and health centers. Officials at Zaatari had some maps of the camp, but they struggled to keep up with its ever-changing nature.

An experiment I launched there led to up-to-date maps of the camp and, I hope, valuable training for some of its residents.

The power of maps

Like many other refugee camps, Zaatari developed quickly in response to a humanitarian emergency. In rapid onset emergencies, mapping often isn’t as high of a priority as basic necessities like food, water and shelter.

However, my research shows that maps can be an invaluable tool in a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis. Modern digital mapping tools have been essential for locating resources and making decisions in a number of crises, from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to the refugee influx in Rwanda.

This got me thinking that the refugees themselves could be the best people to map Zaatari. They have intimate knowledge of the camp’s layout, understand where important resources are located and benefit most from camp maps.

With these ideas in mind, my lab teamed up with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Al-Balqa and Princess Sumaya universities in Jordan.

Modern maps are often made with a technology known as Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. Using funding from the UNHCR Innovation Fund, we acquired the computer hardware to create a GIS lab. From corporate partner Esri, we were obtained low-cost, professional GIS software.

RefuGIS team member Yusuf Hamad and his son Abdullah – who was born in Zaatari refugee camp – learning about GIS. Image: Brian Tomaszewski/creative commons.

Over a period of about 18 months, we trained 10 Syrian refugees. Students in the RefuGIS class ranged in age from 17 to 60. Their backgrounds from when they lived in Syria ranged from being a math teacher to a tour operator to a civil engineer. I was extremely fortunate that one of my students, Yusuf Hamad, spoke fluent English and was able translate my instructions into Arabic for the other students.


We taught concepts such as coordinate systems, map projections, map design and geographic visualisation; we also taught how to collect spatial data in the field using GPS. The class then used this knowledge to map places of interest in the camp, such as the locations of schools, mosques and shops.

The class also learned how to map data using mobile phones. The data has been used to update camp reference maps and to support a wide range of camp activities.

I made a particular point to ensure the class could learn how to do these tasks on their own. This was important: no matter how well-intentioned a technological intervention is, it will often fall apart if the displaced community relies completely on outside people to make it work.

As a teacher, this class was my most satisfying educational experience. This was perhaps my finest group of GIS students across all the types of students I have taught over my 15 years of teaching. Within a relatively short amount of time, they were able to create professional maps that now serve camp management staff and refugees themselves.

A map created with geographic information collected by students in the RefuGIS program. Image: UNHCR/creative commons.

Jobs for refugees

My experiences training refugees and humanitarian professionals in Jordan and Rwanda have made me reflect upon the broader possibilities that GIS can bring to the over 65m refugees in the world today.

It’s challenging for refugees to develop livelihoods at a camp. Many struggle to find employment after leaving.


GIS could help refugees create a better future for themselves and their future homes. If people return to their home countries, maps – essential to activities like construction and transportation – can aid the rebuilding process. If they adopt a new home country, they may find they have marketable skills. The worldwide geospatial industry is worth an estimated $400bn and geospatial jobs are expected to grow over the coming years.

Our team is currently helping some of the refugees get GIS industry certifications. This can further expand their career opportunities when they leave the camp and begin to rebuild their lives.

The ConversationTechnology training interventions for refugees often focus on things like computer programming, web development and other traditional IT skills. However, I would argue that GIS should be given equal importance. It offers a rich and interactive way to learn about people, places and spatial skills – things that I think the world in general needs more of. Refugees could help lead the way.

Brian Tomaszewski, Associate Professor of Information Sciences and Technologies, Rochester Institute of Technology.

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

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.