Public Lab Wiki documentation

Open Sourcing Jerusalem

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by Hagit Keysar

Published in Winter 2012/2013 Grassroots Mapping Forum#3. Order online.

As a pilgrimage city and a highly politicized urban environment, walking tours in Jerusalem are especially visible in its everyday life, revealing the meta-data of a struggle over ownership and authority in the city. The sight of a storyteller leading a group of local inhabitants, rather than pilgrims or travelers, through the streets of Jerusalem, is a common one. Ironically, the inherent and shared freedom by which people act as storytellers of the land they inhabit brought it to be a highly contested issue that even led to an absurd bill proposing to ban Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from serving as tour guides in the city. Within this context, practicing open-source and grassroots mapping techniques here and now in Palestine-Israel can be understood as an attempt at intervening with the mechanisms of vision and visibility which guide inhabitants’ knowledge and movement, reconstructing the perceptions of what the city is and to whom it belongs. It means reclaiming the possibility to see and sense multiplicity and difference as a crucial condition for well-being rather than a threat to one’s existence, overriding censorship, checkpoints, guards, X Ray machines and other forms, ideas and images that gain control over our ability to imagine this place differently.


The first experiences we’ve had creating DIY aerial photography in Jerusalem were in Silwan, East Jerusalem, and Ein Karem, West Jerusalem#. Both Silwan and Ein Karem were previously Palestinian villages. Ein Karem’s Palestinians residents were displaced during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and the village was turned into a Jewish immigrants’ settlement. During the passing decade Ein Karem is undergoing rapid processes of renewal, recent plans are expected to deconstruct some of the village’s structures and ancient agricultural waterways in the aim of developing a commercial area of hotels and restaurants. Against these plans a local group lead by Ein Karem’s well-established Jewish residents is struggling to preserve the villages’ architecture and archaeological stratas. Silwan and its Palestinian residents were annexed to Israel and incorporated into the city of Jerusalem in 1967, and do not hold full Israeli citizenship. It is a unique area of resistance to discriminatory and oppressive planning processes, expropriation of land and house demolitions. Life in Silwan is heavily enclosed by police and military forces who monitor, surveil and restrict the movement and daily life of its residents. Put together, the stories of Ein Karem and Silwan epitomize current instabilities in Jerusalem’s divided urban environment which are closely linked to neoliberal urban policies of space privatisation, that go hand in hand with the exclusionary Israeli-Jewish government.

The question is how would inhabitants use inexpensive and accessible tools for creating aerial photography in Jerusalem? And what are the possibilities and potentials it brings forth? The groups we worked with were organized together with local community centers, and the focus was on children participants. We were looking to introduce them to such DIY tools, contribute to their awareness to the power and politics of mapping and learn of their perspectives on their local environment. Yet in each of the two places the use of aerial photography took a different shape.

Legal regulations may be similar in Silwan and Ein Karem, but practically, the spatial and ethnic divisions in the city clarify that the ordinary freedoms and rights which Jewish inhabitants enjoy require extraordinary consideration when realized by Palestinians. Creating DIY aerial photography above Silwan is an activity liable to raise authorities’ suspicion and intervention and might result in searching and arresting participants, while in the Jewish environment of Ein Karem this reaction is much less likely to happen. It was only after a thorough consideration of the risks and a firm confirmation by the community leaders in Silwan, that we decided to go out to one of the hills in the village and conduct the aerial photography workshops with the children. While the parents joined us in Ein Karem and it became a pleasant outdoor activity for the whole family, in Silwan the atmosphere was intense and the community centre leaders guided and accompanied us, also looking to learn and experience the methods and tools. Once we were at it, flying the kite and attaching the camera, the tension was completely released. Rather than attracting unwanted attention, the sight of us with the big kite on the hill attracted more children to join us, showing us their fabulous skills in kite building and flying.


The map we produced during the two days workshop Ein Karem was used by the inhabitants as a high quality and updated background layer in the visual materials they prepared for court, enhancing their claims for preserving history and archaeology. In Silwan, the community center was interested in creating their own documentation of the village without the dependency on outdated copyrighted AP generated by external sources. The workshops in Silwan which spreaded over two weeks and included PGIS methods, also gave us the time to add photos and text by the children as annotations to the aerial map we stitched. The placemarks and stories on the map depicted anecdotes of their life within the villages’ militarized and violent environment. Their work creatively reincorporated institutionalized tools that are used to surveill, monitor, control and inscribe ownership over their public and private spaces, to their own walks of life and resistance.

Another important issue is that existing commercial aerial images of Israel and the occupied territories are available only in low resolution due to US law, which since 1996, bans the publication of satellite images of Israel in higher resolution than two meters per pixel. In contrast, the average resolution of the photographs we’ve created is 8.9 cm/px and are open-source. This raises the question of whether such civil activity will be marked as a target for law enforcement officials, or serve as a recognized alternative for civil uses by individuals and organizations, and consequently contribute to weakening the effects of state organized censorship on geographic information.

The ease and playfulness of sending a kite attached with a camera to the sky and stitching a geo-rectified map tells a completely different story about the urban environment, what it is and what it enables inhabitants to do. It reminds us that the geography is equally and essentially shared by its inhabitants, whoever they are citizens or noncitizens, and having the ability to share information and knowledge about it might reveal pathways for a more democratic and inclusive urban, and legal, environments.

In the case of the struggle lead by the Jewish Ein Karem’s residents’ for preserving the village, one might ask about the unheard voices of the Palestinian generations of refugees and internally displaced, which live among us and used to dwell and own property in the village prior to the 1948 war. My question here is, whether we can use such platforms of open access and production of knowledge to challenge the divisions between the Palestinian identity of Jerusalem and its Jewish-Israeli one. Can the use of open technological practices assist us in creating communication paths and protocols that address and redress the wrongs that are deeply shaping our current environment?

The collaborative work of mapmaking, stitching together the images of our geographies, is in my eyes an opportunity for stitching the embroidery of complexity, it doesn’t offer any solutions, but might open-up new forms of vision and visibility and hence new paths for movement and encounter. Indeed, it might enable re-imagining our relationship with the environment, and at once the relationships among ourselves.