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The Palestinian Conflict, Settled on Your iPhone

A new app called Facts on the Ground lets users track settlements in the West Bank — and pushes the app world into political advocacy.

The Palestinian Conflict, Settled on Your iPhone

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It was inevitable that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would come to the iPhone sooner or later. But this week’s release of the free, Facts on the Ground, a map-based guide to settlement activity on the West Bank put out by Americans for Peace Now, is more than a neat app: It’s an example of the use of iPhones for advocacy causes.

Americans for Peace Now, a leftist organization advocating a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and affiliated with Israeli group Shalom Achshav (Peace Now), released the app ahead of the end of Israel’s partial moratorium on settlement construction next Sunday, September 26. The same day the app was launched, Shalom Achshav paid for a planeload of Israeli parliamentarians and international journalists (including Isabel Kershner of the New York Times) to fly over the West Bank and view settlement growth.

At the center of the app is a scalable Google-model map of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and the neighboring region. Israeli settlements in the post-1967 territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem appear as little blue houses. In some areas, the houses clump and cluster on top of each other; in others, they appear as lonely markers. A series of toggleable layers and overlays show the Green Line (the 1948-1967 border between Israel and Jordan and the current Israel-West Bank boundary), the path of the West Bank Barrier/Separation Wall, Palestinian municipalities, demarcations of Israeli/Palestinian control in the West Bank and several other geographic features. Users turn them on and off at will.

When a user clicks on a box, a pop-up appears that gives the community’s founding date along with population, demographic and lifestyle information (is it a secular community established for cheap rents/mortgages? Or inhabited by ultra-Orthodox religious zealots?). APN also promises that they will update the app to reflect violence or newsworthy incidents taking place inside the settlements.

Data used in the project comes from a variety of sources, with the methodology clearly explained. They range from the Israeli government (the Israeli Ministry of Defense provided the jurisdictional boundaries of settlements; population statistics were obtained from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics) to the United Nations and Shalom Achshav field researchers.

 

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To develop the application, APN teamed up with Boston-based design and marketing firm Alipes, best known for work on behalf of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Using statistics provided by APN, Alipes built the application along the lines of a commercial restaurant- or store- mapping app. It took them the better part of a year.

Says APN’s Ori Nir: “We receive questions on a daily basis about settlement construction. We were seeking a way to make all this info available and accessible to the public. We realized that we had all this information, and wanted to make it available beyond the web.” The app’s target audience includes “Mideast policy wonks, foreign journalists and the average person who has a general interest in Israel or its neighbors”—presumably the exact demographic APN is hoping to influence.

Although only available for the iPhone/iPad right now, an Android version and a Hebrew edition are in the works. No Arabic edition has been announced.

Facts on the Ground is entering into an uncrowded market for Israeli-Palestinian conflict-related iPhone applications. There is MyPalestine, a bilingual (English/Arabic) history and culture application, and an official Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs app launched this past summer that links to ongoing news stories and YouTube videos posted by the tech-savvy Ministry. No iPhone application has yet been released by any overtly pro-Palestinian advocacy groups such as the Council for the National Interest.

Apple has been eager to keep the iTunes store controversy-free. The store is notably short on applications relating to geopolitical
flashpoints. So it’s possible that Facts on the Ground could open the door for apps about Kashmir, Chechnya, Dagestan, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, and the Western Sahara.

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American political parties and advocacy groups have only begun to adopt mobile phone applications. As of yet, the most impressive effort was the Democratic National Committee’s “Official Democratic Party App,” whose eDonate tools, instant talking points and event calendar were primarily geared towards party volunteers. The battle to win the heart and thumbs of the iPhone-using public continues.

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