PIVOT The World

Imagine an app that inspires you to raise your smart phone or tablet, holding it toward a landmark, and allows you to go back in time and revisit the exact same spot. Add narratives from contemporaries and you’re even more enmeshed. That’s the idea behind PIVOTtheWorld – an exciting new app being developed by Palestinian-Americans Sami Jitan and Asma Jaber.

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Despite having been raised in the same town of Greenville, South Carolina, Sami and Asma did not cross paths until 15 May 2012 (Nakba Day) at the Allenby Bridge border crossing between Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In an e-mail interview with Palestine Square, Sami related, “It ended up that two descendants of Palestinian refugees would meet on the cusp of the Diaspora”! That chance encounter led to a burgeoning friendship and later that year a happy engagement.

While working for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem in the summer of 2012, Asma received word that her father died in the US. After returning to South Carolina to grieve and console her mother, Asma resumed graduate studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

“The first time I visited Historic Palestine after my father passed away, I felt lost,” she writes on PIVOT’s website. “He grew up in Palestine and knew the area and history so intimately; without him, I did not have the ability to fully appreciate the rich culture and history beneath my very feet. But I realized that this did not have to be the case.” This led her, in Sami’s retelling, “to the Harvard Innovation Lab to see if she could build something to commemorate her father’s story and home village.”

“The original idea for the app was born out of Asma’s father’s story and his passing away,” Sami told me. “My story involves falling in love with Asma, the story of her father, and eventually getting engaged to Asma. It was only after all that (and helping to lead the 2013 Harvard Palestine Trek with Asma) that the idea for PIVOT came to take form.”

PIVOT allows users to access photographs, videos and information at an exact location – a PIVOT point. Not a city or village, but what you’re looking at in that moment – like a house or shop if a PIVOT point has been placed there – and images and information will vary according to time periods. Thus PIVOT will present a multimedia spectrum revealing a temporal transformation of space. And the app is a collaborative venture with a web-based, crowd-sourcing content management system (CMS) that will allows users to update PIVOT with their own images and narratives in real time for all to see. Accessing PIVOT on your smart phone or tablet will allow you so see where PIVOT points have been placed and to open each point to reveal the past in images and text. You may do this remotely or at the scene:

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Asma and Sami launched a test run around Harvard University – they entered the university’s Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge in 2014 and won the grand prize of $25,000 – but it is in Palestine/Israel that PIVOT’s mission comes to light.

I spoke to Sami via e-mail and presented below is our Q&A:

We know Asma’s late father was her inspiration. What was your inspiration?

I had always been fascinated with ideas of discourse, power, and the subaltern/subversive. More than that I could see how political and economic realities in Palestine and Jordan were atrophying the “stickiness” of the pre-Nakba/Naksa memories I listened to from my older relatives.

I believe that the act of meaningful writing and remembrance will be a way against those destructive forces.

Reflective writing is how I hope the younger “i-Generation” or Millennials will be inspired – in the same way that I had been listening to Asma’s story about her father – to not only document via smartphone but to also, in their hearts and minds, hold on to and pass on the stories and the lessons of the past.

All of this means building a fun to use and intrinsically fascinating app! I – like everyone else – have been amazed by the explosion of technological and online advancements in the last 15-20 years; and therefore felt that I should maximize my performance in this revolution of tech, intellectualism, and social consciousness.

Since my academic background is in Cultural Anthropology and Journalism I wanted to build an app that would inspire holistic narratives among many different peoples and more importantly their stories. I also wanted that participation to be extremely meaningful, light on corporate influences, intellectually challenging, and historically accurate.

Unfortunately many social media apps that are widely used are concerned with the new and the now – and I would desperately like to see Millenials move past that fascination and towards a more rooted understanding of their individual and collective identities.

Hopefully this project can do that in an engaging way!

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PIVOT’s success depends on a crowd-sourcing content management system (CSM). In historic Palestine, have you found a network of people willing to record photographs and history?

As with all endeavors one must start small. Currently Asma and I are running the personal archiving [from] our own old boxes of photos – to better understand the process of remembering – and technically speaking what “fields” a user should fill when categorizing these archives electronically.

To expand in the near future we are reaching out to a museum in Palestine to gauge their interest in helping us spread the word about this platform we hope to build soon!

PIVOT could be a revolutionary travel aid that might change the way we approach cities. But historic Palestine is not, say, Amsterdam. I read that you were endorsed by the Israeli NGO Zochrot, which has its own iNakba app about Palestinians villages destroyed during the 1947-1949 war. Will PIVOT also include razed Palestinian villages and recreate the look and feel of those villages with old images imposed on the new grounds?

Our friendship with Zochrot is positive and hopeful. Their database, which is comprised of geo-tagging the city or village centers is excellent but we intend to go a step further by tagging the exact coordinate of a landmark or where an old picture was taken and then layering each one of those old pictures in an individual “PIVOT Point” – an exact geo-coordinate that contains meaningful historical data layered over time.

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These points can be accessed on location or abroad and can also be connected to one another to form an augmented reality or virtual reality “PIVOT Tour.”

The beauty of technology is once a process has been programmed well the first time it can be replicated over and over ad infinitum for any location in the world. So if we can do it well for let’s say Saffouriya (a destroyed village in Historic Palestine, now covered with a [Jewish National Fund] forest), there’s no reason that process will not work anywhere else in the world.

The idea of 3-D modeling razed Palestinian villages continues to be suggested to us but we are now mainly focused on geo-tagging historical photos – and including the exact vantage point [where] the photo was taken – while at the same time ensuring the “provenance” or origins of each photo.

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That being said we may return to CADing (which stands for Computer Assisted Design, usually the 3D artistic rendition of an object); but because [3D artistic renditions] are technically an alteration of historical photos we will have to look into the legal ramifications of modifying content and perhaps write a disclaimer saying that this image has been altered from its original form.

Much of the world’s cities are a landscape of contested history. It seems that at times you’ll be playing a balancing act when it comes to narration. Palestine and Israel have overlapping Jewish/Christian/Muslim places – even names are contested – how will this play out in PIVOT?  

Part of ensuring PIVOT’s veracity is including the story of each (and when necessary, appropriate) layer of history – whether the data come from vetted institutions, historians, or academics; or even an individual that has adequately filed out all the appropriate fields in their submission. That being said the fields that Zochrot currently has in its database for the iNakba app include different languages and names for a particular city as well as fields for additional description and multimedia.

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In the case of the place where Jerusalem’s Moroccan Quarter once stood [adjacent to the Western Wall and demolished after the 1967 Six-Day War to expand the plaza for Jewish worshippers] – it is a part of [a] city with rich layers upon layers of destruction and rebuilding – and it is my belief that a user will benefit from knowing how and why a 800 year old neighborhood came to be destroyed  – even if the user is reading the narrative by the ruling destroyer, having the subaltern’s story articulated and juxtaposed right beneath or beside gives more strength and meaning to that otherwise “buried” story than if it were to stand alone. This also makes for meaningful travel and exploration.

All in all the more layers and the more vetted contextual information for each layer – even if the story may contest the previous one, the better of an overall resource the PIVOT platform becomes.

I’m sure you need no introduction to the passionate partisans on both sides who seek to police discourse on Palestine/Israel. Have you encountered that and what has been your response?

Thankfully we haven’t encountered anyone trying to “police” what we want to do – but why should they police us? I would not bar someone whom I personally disagree with from using the app and/or contributing to our platform’s database. If any premium user has the appropriate ownership for a photo and provides the historical provenance for multimedia as well as the academic/institutional legitimacy to write on the topic then that premium user can post a public PIVOT Point.

To clarify, premium users are vetted institutions, historians, or academics that can post public PIVOT Points; whereas the end users can only share within their networks. We are exploring monetary and nonmonetary incentives for end users to share their content with a Premium user, who in turn would provide the end user with compensation (through in app purchases).

Again, truth to power discourse is the way subaltern history is brought to light.

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I have been made aware that Institute for Palestine Studies General Secretary Walid Khalidi has advised you. What has been his take on PIVOT and what influence has his work, particularly Before Their Diaspora and All That Remains that chronicle pre and post-1948 in photography and text, respectively, had on PIVOT?

Professor Khalidi was a gracious host when he invited Asma and me to his Jerusalemite home away from home close to Harvard University. He regaled us with his own stories as a child, as an academic, as a writer, and even as a founder of a revered institution.

(The food was delicious – we had grape leaves and yogurt, the best I’ve ever had!)

When we presented him with PIVOT he made one uncompromising warning: that if we wanted to ensure our legitimacy as a keeper of records we should check and recheck all the facts included in the platform – that means even leaving out information that we’re not exactly sure about.

ATR and BTD as I understand are made up of photos housed in personal and institutional collections. What we learned from Professor Khalidi is that we must know the place, context, and photographer of each photo we include in our database.

Therefore the premium model we are developing is designed to put the responsibility on the vetted premium user to ensure that the time, place, and context of each description of each photo are accurate. We want to guarantee to our users that the content they are seeing as they “PIVOT the world” is at a high standard of historical accuracy.

After Cambridge, MA and Palestine, where do you plan to expand next? Will it be managed and gradual or will this be an open expansion reliant on on-the-ground networks?

Ideally we would want to soon see the app and web-platform used by institutions and communities for Iraq and Syria – two places in the world, rich with history but undergoing massive destruction.

The way we hope to cover those areas is to partner with an established institution with substantive archives while at the same time leaving it up to those communities (including in the Diaspora) to archive their own personal photos and stories.

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PIVOT aspires to be a universal app, but with its launch it is clear there’s a special relationship with Palestine.  Do you believe this app can introduce many people to a Palestinian history previously unknown? Do you see your project as part of a larger Palestinian project to preserve a heritage that Zionism is eagerly trying to erase?

A friend of mine approached me asking why Asma and I were hurting our chances for success by starting PIVOT in Palestine. I told him [we] did not have a choice, we’re Palestinian and this is our story.

Besides the project would not be the same if it were started as a tourist app for just any random hot spot. Good things will come (and they have!) [from] being true to ourselves.

Technically speaking there’s nothing special in the ‘data’ of Palestinian PIVOT Points  – but how we’ve structured the platform is what will be everlasting for all other locations: in documenting vantage points, layering historic pictures on top of one another, multiple name and language fields, justification of provenance, community sharing and storytelling, etc.

Palestine is enormously special to Asma and me but we are not telling all of our users “Hey go look at the Historic Palestine PIVOT Points and see what was destroyed there before you check out any others.” No, that’s not the plan. Speaking for myself (but both Asma and I studied and loved anthropology), what we hope to convey to the user is a way of looking at the world: a way of seeing things as multi-dimensional, layered, holistic, and for seeking out the truth given the knowledge of the past.

Have you reached out to other activists facing similar concerns? For instance, Armenians recording histories in Anatolia?

There have been quite a few connections with Armenian historians and anthropologists but no official collaborations as of yet. If self-proclaimed activists anywhere can use PIVOT as a tool – then more power to them!

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

For Asma and me, PIVOT is our first entrepreneurial endeavor. We had no background in business, marketing, or tech except for what we’ve learned on a hands-on basis since this project began almost two-years ago! Our driving force is our respect for the past and the ongoing support of our friends, family, and the community. Sometimes we joke that PIVOT is our first “baby” but when someone special like Professor Khalidi likes our idea, it’s overwhelmingly clear how PIVOT can become something much larger than us.

PIVOT is important because it allows us to preserve and share histories and cultures at risk of being lost. We will first launch in Historic Palestine (Palestine/Israel), a place with rich historical, cultural, and religious significance, and a place where the preservation of Palestinian culture and history is under threat.

We plan to scale PIVOT because there are places with rich histories all across the world that need to come alive and be preserved in today’s digital era.

There’s something truly spectacular in the way a weary traveler is guided – in how his/her destination is pre-determined and colored by the paths and stories paved by generations before. Asma and Sami are building this project to ensure the next generation’s easy access to a history that would otherwise be hard to reach and impossible to imagine.

To learn more about PIVOT visit the app’s website, follow PIVOT on Twitter and Facebook, and to support PIVOT’s development donate to the Kickstarter campaign.

By Khelil Bouarrouj.