On Getting Ejected from Jordan

Preamble: I wrote the following after 1.5 years ago after getting kicked out of Jordan for trying to map it. We retreated to Palestine, where I was fairly certain it would work, but ended up going amazingly. Enough time has passed that all the entities in this story no longer care, people are even flying balloons in the center of Amman, so here it is for posterity.

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“There’s nothing here which will do any good for the people of Jordan.”

That’s when we knew things probably weren’t going forward.

I should have expected things would go wildly wrong at the Royal Jordanian Geographic Center, when tentatively approach by desperated-eyed, young French geographers on loan from the Institut Géographique National, the French national mapping agency. “What are you doing here? We don’t often see visitors from the Occident.” Or when I received the call 15 minutes before departing San Francisco, “The RJGC has a few issues with our project”.

In the executive meeting room, the deputy director was joined by three colonels in full uniform, all looking grim and one carrying print outs of OpenStreetMap.org. The RJGC, like many national mapping agencies in history, is both a civilian and military agency. It was made abundantly clear that there had been a major breach of protocol, that we should have consulted with the RJGC sooner about our project. And it was made clear again. And again, this time louder. And then in Arabic. Maybe a few times more.

Jordan is a monarchy. There is tremendous respect for the the King and the Royal Family, who are intimately involved in all aspects of life in Jordan. No doubt, their wise rule has led Jordan to become an island of peace and stability within a region of turmoil and violence. The Switzerland of the Middle East. Jordan has openly accepted refugees from Palestine and Iraq. The people on the whole are very welcoming and friendly.

However, authority does have a general tendency to overstep its utility. We were told in absolute terms, the RJGC is the only entity in Jordan with the authority to make maps. Any other government, civilian or military agency requiring maps must acquire them through the RJGC. So you can see how that might not be compatible with a bunch of hippies carrying GPS units. What we were doing was declared illegal.

“One of the goals of your project is to map military installations!” Colonel Omar had printed out the OSM map key. OSM does map military installations. It maps everything and anything. But to think that we represent any kind of security threat, and have greater access than anyone with access to the web is paranoia in the highest degree. Paleotards live! We were nearly accused of being Israeli spies.

“Do you think you can just walk down the Champes Elyssee and make a map?”
“Would the Israeli’s let you map?”

Further the idea that we might have something to offer, in education, ideas, international connections, and technology, was ridiculed. The RJGC runs a college which trains all geographers and surveryors in Jordan, an exclusive expertise. Though many of those young well trained geographers were being hired away by the Gulf states, a threatening brain drain. “It’s impossible for you to map al-Mafrak in two days”. It’s a small town of <100k, and we would have 12 participants. We'd collect data to the usual level of OSM detail .. not the outline of bay windows .. but to the level useful for communication and unexpected uses forgotten by those in control of geodata. It felt like 2005. "You expect to map all of Jordan to 1:500 in months. The RJGC has a proud 50 year history." Nevermind that 95% of Jordan is desert.

To demonstrate their advanced techniques, we were taken on the tour after the meeting. The "tour" consisted of a 25 minute video demonstrating the RJGC's use of ESRI products, with a length section of flight simulator set to triumphant music and painfully bad cheap video wipes. And that's the extent of the tour. I have no doubt that the RJGC is a sophisticated organization, but such a demonstration did nothing to convince me that we have nothing to offer them.

When it become clear that we weren't mapping al-Mafrak, I tried changing tact. I offered training in our techniques to RJGC staff and students, as well as instruction in open source GIS and web based mapping. The whole Where 2.0. The response .. "I was trained in France! What's your experience in geography?" When I replied I was a web developer, they scoffed. Truly, what can you do at such a ridiculous display. Colonels in full regalia trying desperately to assert authority and upshow some dude from California who has only come to help.

I also suggested that if we weren't mapping, then our goal of public domain data was still valid, and that perhaps the RJGC could release some data. "Haven't you heard of globalmapping? We already donate to that. Anyway, if anyone needs a map in Jordan, they can ask us." This is in a capital city that does not even have a bus route map.

"If you really want free maps, we'll give you some". On leaving, we were each presented with a thick packet of paper tourist maps of Jordan. We showed these later to some locals. Maps full of mistakes and problems and painful cartography.

Well there was only one thing do after this. Went for a beer at the only local pub, "The Hangover", bursting full of young women from former Soviet republics. And now it's mapped.

2 Comments

  1. Michal Migurski said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    That is so deeply frustrating. You’re scratching at something interesting there with the defensive response from the Colonels – they’re partially there to serve the people of Jordan, and partially just feeling like their professional expertise is being impugned. “They can ask us” is like the clarion call of the pre-opensource world.

  2. map butcher » Natural Geography said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    [...] is a geographer (of the natural worthwhile variety). His work and blog are simply terrific. [...]

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