Maps & Timelines: Israel and Palestine Water Issues

Last Semester I sat in on a course at the University of Michigan taught by Sandra Arlinghaus and Ann Evans titled: Maps and Timelines: The Quest for Peace in the Middle East.

I approached the course as a technologist looking to expand my knowledge of application and techniques of GIS and web mapping for addressing social and environmental issues. It was an interesting experience due to the fact that the rest of the class was primarily education and middle-east studies students, with very little technical capability.

Throughout the course we discussed what Arlinghaus and Evans are calling a "Geomat", a geographic matrix that formulates a standard 'recipe' for building a hypermedia visualization of anthropological issues. This includes both pertinent data: climate, demographics, terrain, resources, economic and social institutions, individual actors, and policy; as well as multiple interface elements: maps, calendrical timelines, individual events of interest, biographies, source documents, and organizational reports.

Overall, this is an excellent concept for how to design an informational and exploration site to document and educate on an issue. Too often a site is full of text that is typically opaque to understanding by the average reader, or simple pretty graphics that are too easy to tell the single-side of a story or mislead and under-represent. Together all of these elements can serve to provide the user with a multifaceted understanding of an issue - from technical to anthropological perspectives, and provide a better analysis capability in which to frame future discussion.

The culmination of the course as building a project around a specific event or issue in the middle east. Inspired by Corrie's work, I chose to investigate and map the consumer water issues and in general hydrological capabilities and rights that has underpinned most conflicts and discussions between Israel, Palestine, and other countries in the region like Jordan and Egypt.

Israel-Palestine Water Issues

The Data

Gathering the data for this project proved to be particularly difficult. After a lot of searching I did start to find some very good static maps generated by the UN and some of the Israeli Agencies. None of these provided the underlying data and as such did not provide a mechanism for investigation or combining with other data.

This actually illustrates part of the problem why there is such conflict over water in the region. Maps tend to be limited in the data they show - either being hydrological maps, or infrastructure maps, or political boundary maps. However, the situation is more complicated and inter-dependent. Issues over security fences and borders typically move boundaries several miles for no apparent reason. When you bring in well locations and other infrastructure, the reasons become very apparent as the fence may be moved to provide access to a small number of wells to one side or the other.

A larger, more prevalent issue is the actual location of the aquifers and the effect that inhabitation and construction has on affecting the quantity and quality of water of residents much further away. All the water from the West Bank (Eastern side of Israel) flows towards the Mediterranean and affects the coastal aquifer. Therefore Palestinian usage and maintenance of this water source affects Israelis, a situation that has obvious unsettled many in Israel and underpins negotations.

Finally I was able to get some very useful data from the Executive Action Team (EXACT) Multilateral Working Group on Water Resources, which is tasked with gathering data and providing analysis and sources for this very issue. In addition, networking with David Katz of the University of Michigan and Michael Eyal of the Hydrological Service of Israel got me better aquifer and stream data. These and more resources are listed on the site here and I've also included the converted data formats and uploaded them to Mapufacture.

The Technical

Being a technologist, I wanted to build a 'slick' way to generate my Geomat with dynamic content from a common data store. It's been a very long time since I created a "static" site that wasn't generated from some form of a database.

For the Israel & Palestine Water site I chose to store all the information in KML. The richness of KML allowed me to specify styling, temporal, and other attributes such as actor (country) and category (water, conflict, meeting, individual).

I then built a simple PHP page that parses the KML and populates the map and two timelines. The two timelines has drawn some criticism, but I wanted a way to show both major events for quick navigation - kind of like a shortcut menu, and then a more complete timeline that showed all events on a very fine timescale.

The underlying tools used also included Mapstraction, which made the overlay of markers and polygons for watersheds very easy, and Simile Timeline, which has excellent support for time visualization. Tying the two together was straight-forward and my Javascript was inspired by this Earthquake Map/TImeline demo.

At the end of the project I added a Mapufacture map at the bottom of the page that brings in dynamic and up-to-date news of the region pulled from a variety of sources including news agencies, blogs, and media sharing sites. Ultimately, I would like to overlay this dynamic information onto the primary map, but there are definite issues to be addressed with usability with so much data and making it usable and understandable.

That last part really summarizes the entire issue that Geomats and other design patterns are attempting to resolve. How do you provide for a very rich, and deep, map interface without overwhelming the user and providing mechanisms for exploration and investigation. There is some utilization of the timeline to filter the viewed events, and being able to select markers either geographically or temporally, and have the alternate display centered also aids in guiding the user in connecting the entire set of complex issues.

Also check out the other Maps & Timelines projects, especially Esmaeel Dadashzadeh's analysis of the efforts to data and investigation of the currently proposed solutions when analyzed using this Geomat multifaceted approach.

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.