Researchers explore how geographic information systems can help in the West Bank

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Businesses, governments and educators are increasingly turning to geographic information systems (GIS) to solve problems and improve processes. GIS integrates hardware, software and data for capturing, managing, analyzing and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. Carleen Maitland, an associate professor at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), recently made a trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank, where she conducted preliminary research that examined the impact of GIS on humanitarian aid and economic development in the region.

“In the West Bank, land is extremely political and very important,” Maitland said. “It naturally lends itself to the use of GIS.”

Maitland, along with Anthony Robinson, a research associate in the GeoVISTA Center and Dutton e-Education Institute in the Penn State Department of Geography, received a grant from the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) at Penn State. The July trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank was part of a project that Maitland and Robinson are conducting on geographic information use by international development organizations. While in the Middle East, Maitland collaborated with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a federal agency primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid. Maitland said that she asked USAID leaders about what particular mission was heavily reliant on GIS, and they advised them to look at the mission for the West Bank, which has been using GIS since 2002.

The West Bank is a landlocked territory, bordered by Israel on the north, south and west, and Jordan on the east, forming the bulk of the Palestinian Territories. In June 1967, the West Bank and East Jerusalem were captured by Israel as a result of the Six-Day War. The 1993 Oslo Accords declared the final status of the West Bank to be subject to a forthcoming settlement between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Following these interim accords, Israel withdrew its military rule from some parts of the West Bank, which was divided into three administrative divisions of the Oslo Accords: Area A (about 11 percent of the population), which is under Palestinian civil and security control; Area B (about 28 percent), which is subject to Israeli military control and Palestinian civil control; and Area C (about 61 percent), which is under full Israeli control.

An important  impetus for the adoption of GIS in the West Bank, Maitland said, arose out of the Second Intifada — a period of intensified Palestinian-Israeli violence, which began in late September 2000 and ended in 2005 and had a death toll of about 3,000 Palestinians, 1,000 Israelis and 64 foreigners. Due to the clash, USAID leaders were concerned about sending staff members to do field checks on projects and possibly subjecting them to skirmishes, stone-throwing and bombs. Eventually, the leaders discovered that GIS could be useful not only for enhancing security, but also for coordinating projects such as building schools.

“It seems like what started out as a security concern from USAID’s perspective has helped Palestinians develop skills in locating and planning projects,” Maitland said.

USAID developed its own GIS to collect data from its implementation partners — organizations that collaborate with USAID on economic development and humanitarian efforts — so that USAID leaders have precise knowledge of the locations of the projects. For example, Maitland said, if an implementation partner asks the USAID for a grant to build a school, the agency could use GIS to determine precisely where the school could be built. USAID maintains a project database that implementation partners use to report data to the USAID on their projects, such as how much money was spent and how many people benefitted from the project, e.g. a certain number of jobs that were created to build a school. In addition to its own GIS system, USAID and some of its implementation partners also use Esri’s ArcGIS, a system for working with maps and geographic information. The system provides an infrastructure for making maps and geographic information available throughout an organization, across a community and openly on the Web.

While in Jerusalem, Maitland said, she met with people working in international development or using GIS in the West Bank to learn more about the growth of GIS use in the area. Several United Nations agencies that are active in international development have been using GIS, including the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the part of the UN Secretariat responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies. USAID has required the use of GIS for more than 10 years, Maitland said, so she was interested to know whether this requirement was burdensome or if implementation partners had begun to use GIS independent of this requirement. She also talked to aid workers in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the central West Bank, to inquire about their use of GIS.

“I was interested in learning how the GIS system influenced their own work,” she said.

One of the major issues that Maitland encountered on her trip, she said, was data sharing. As the humanitarian agencies become aware of their counterparts’ data sets, it would be beneficial for all agencies to “share data more freely with one another so better and more complex analyses can be conducted.”

The research conducted on her Middle East trip, Maitland said, was funded by SSRI as a seed grant and found “more questions than conclusions.” The findings will be used as preliminary evidence as they “dig deeper into the story of GIS use in the West Bank.” A possible area of further investigation is the Israeli West Bank Barrier, a security and separation barrier that is under construction by the State of Israel along and within the West Bank. Israel argues that the barrier is necessary to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism, including the suicide bombing attacks that increased significantly during the Second Intifada. Maitland said that she would also like to investigate USAID missions in Jordan and Iraq and help determine if GIS systems developed for the West Bank could be transferred to those locations.

“Geographic issues are very sensitive,” she said. “I’m interested in studying whether public perceptions expressed via social media could be integrated with GIS and compare what’s happening on the West Bank with other locations.”

Contacts: 
Last Updated August 28, 2013