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Kickstarter campaign helps citizen scientists map refugee camp from above

citizen science refugee burj
Claudia Martinez Mansell

A young team of citizen scientists from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon just got a little help from a few hundred backers on Kickstarter.

The campaign began as an effort to produce maps of the Bourj Al Shamali refugee camp, while giving the citizen scientists a chance to share their experiences with those abroad. After an initial influx of support, the project raised its goal, and then expanded to include signposts and the camp’s first community garden.

“The camp residents know the camp very well,” Kickstarter campaign organizer Claudia Martinez Mansell tells Digital Trends, “so a map in this sense will not help them.”

Mansell has been working in and around Bourj Al Shamali for years. She says the maps are intended to help engage nonresidents and offer a way to visualize the camp from the outside. “I think it will be used a lot for advocacy,” Mansell explains. “At the same time, the camp is getting organized, so visually, it will help to think of certain issues in the camp spatially.”

Bourj Al Shamali was established as a temporary camp for Palestinian refugees in 1948. Nearly 70 years later, more than 23,000 registered refugees call this makeshift camp home. Fifty percent of them are younger than 18, Mansell said.

Inspired by Public Lab, a young group of these residents began balloon-mapping Bourj Al Shamali last year, capturing more detail than what can be found through sources like Google. Accurate maps do exist, says Mansell, but they aren’t made public for the residents to review.

As the cameras took to the sky, the handlers on the ground faced a handful of obstacles. Rambunctious youngsters sometimes shot at the balloons, and outsiders confiscated a camera’s memory card. But the team’s efforts earned them support from across the oceans — including invitations to speak at Harvard University and a Public Lab event in Louisiana in November.

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“It has been really moving for me,” Mansell says of the of the invitations and encouragement from Kickstarter. “Many friends came out to support it, so I was very touched. Then it is also exciting when you see people who you do not know come out to support the project.

“It has been terrific and the team in the camp have been amazed at how people from so many countries have responded and are supporting our project, and that they care about these issues.”

The Kickstarter campaign ended today with $16,830 pledged — well above the $12,500 goal. With that money, Bourj Al Shamali will hopefully see its first public green space and finalized maps, as the three citizen scientists travel to the United States to share their stories.