The West Bank’s dearth of data proves difficult to navigate

Need to get around in Israel? Easy. Israeli tech wizards invented Waze, a navigation app that crunches traffic information and data from drivers’ phones to generate nifty real-time maps showing the fastest route. Little wonder then that Google snapped it up in 2013 for more than $1bn.

But Waze is not always a smooth experience. In Israel, it works like a charm — as it does in other developed countries. But drive your car deep into the Israeli-occupied West Bank — especially the areas under Palestinian Authority control — and Waze loses its verve, failing to locate many addresses, or pausing to process its thoughts. Sometimes it loses its way.

Some of this is due to poor phone reception: the Palestinians, despite having reached an agreement with Israel in 2015 on launching 3G services, don’t yet have it. Palestinians often navigate using landmarks rather than street names. (A common direction Palestinians will give a lost motorist is “dugri”, or straight.)

Waze’s maps are poorer in the Palestinian-controlled swaths of the West Bank, possibly in part because Israeli citizens, with a few exceptions (on-duty soldiers, journalists, politicians on official visits), are prohibited by law from entering the PA and are not feeding back information to the app’s route planners. Waze might warn you off your trip entirely. Input Ramallah and an alarming-looking red prompt will warn you that you are entering a “high risk or illegal area”.

Perhaps it should surprise no one that maps — like many other things in the Holy Land — can be a source of conflict. Waze made the headlines last year after two Israeli soldiers who were using the app near Ramallah mistakenly drove into the volatile Qalandiya refugee camp. A firefight ensued in which one Palestinian was killed and more than a dozen were injured. Israel’s military recently gave Waze’s developers a field tour in the West Bank to make sure it was “accurate” in its directions.

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The Levant’s arid expanses have been surveyed and fought over since the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, with its proverbial line in the sand delineating French and British control over swaths of what was once the Ottoman Empire.

More recently, maps have played key roles in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the last meaningful peace negotiation in 2008 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas showed his Israeli counterpart Ehud Olmert a scrawled proposal for land swaps which was later leaked to the press and dubbed the “napkin map”. The FT bureau in Jerusalem is papered with maps of the region, drawn up by non-governmental organisations and UN agencies, mottled with colour-coded blotches showing checkpoints and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Foreign companies that delve into mapping Israel and the Palestinian Territories do so at their peril. Google has faced criticism from the Palestinians for maps showing Israeli settlements, while omitting some Palestinian villages and towns.

In January, Rami Hamdallah, the Palestinian prime minister, called on Google and Apple to include all Palestinian communities in their maps. He claimed that while some Palestinians could not find their own villages, Israeli settlers could get driving directions “to cross the West Bank in its entirety to get from one illegal Israeli settlement to the other”.

Some have brought a splash of humour to the situation. A T-shirt on sale from Arab vendors in Jerusalem’s Old City shows a Google screen in which the user has typed the search term “Israel” and the prompt replies: “Did you mean: Palestine”

Google says that it is committed to creating “the most comprehensive, accurate and useful maps anywhere in the world”. It says it relies on third-party data and public sources, and any gaps between Israel and the lands that border it is due to the available data, “not because of any political or national bias”. In April, Google said it added more than 200 residential areas and 700 names in several languages to its maps of the bits of the West Bank under direct Israeli control. It recently collected 360-degree imagery in the cities of the West Bank.

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Waze concedes that its maps are “only as strong as local participation” and the strength of the local cellular signal — so better, for now, to listen to the locals: drive straight, keep looking, and ask again if you get lost.

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