In Hong Kong Protests, Technology Serves as a Tool of Both Expression and Repression

While activists have used the internet as a powerful organizing tool, web coverage on the Chinese mainland is defined by mass blackouts and systematic silencing.

Protesters in Hong Kong. Studio Incendo. CC BY 2.0

Protesters in Hong Kong. Studio Incendo. CC BY 2.0

The most widely attended protest in recent American memory, the Women’s March, brought about 1 percent of the population onto the streets. Last month’s protests in Hong Kong brought 25 percent.

By any standards, the anti-extradition campaign in Hong Kong, spurred by a proposed China-backed amendment that would allow for the extradition of Hong Kongers to mainland China, was an astronomical success, engaging huge swathes of the population and eventually leading to the death of the proposal. Images of the demonstration depict unfathomable numbers of citizens exercising their right to peaceful protests, but something remains invisible in those photos: the constantly active, multilayered and multifaceted presence of the internet, which—through messaging apps, social media, and LIHKG (Hong Kong’s answer to Reddit)—allowed protestors to turn ideology into concrete action.

On June 12, the protest reached a milestone when tens of thousands of citizens surrounded the Hong Kong legislative building, spurring an initial suspension of the bill. In order to mobilize without attracting unwanted attention, activists created online events inviting people to a “picnic” in nearby Tamar Park, a cover-up for their actual intentions. Messaging services, too, helped with planning efforts. Particularly popular was the encrypted app Telegram—although the arrest of Ivan Ip for “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance” set efforts back, given that Ip was leading a group on the platform of 30,000 users. Still, Ip’s group was far from the only one: In a Baptist University poll of protestors, more than half of respondents reported using Telegram for broadcasting information and participating in discussion groups.

Protestors in the streets. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

Protestors in the streets. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

The survey also revealed the protestors’ widespread use of LIHKG, which lived up to its reputation of supporting free speech by subtly assisting activist efforts: Administrators removed ads from their site for about two weeks in June to shorten loading time and upped the number of replies allowed on some threads from 1,001 to 5,001, citing a need “for more convenient discussions.”

For protestors, the utility of social media and messaging platforms was far from over once planning progressed into action. During the demonstration on June 12, attendees broadcast real-time updates through countless Instagram stories and an hour-long livestream on the Twitter-owned service Periscope. In addition to spreading the word to Hong Kongers not attending the demonstration, protestors were able to communicate amongst themselves, using apps to request supplies, share the locations of food and water stations, and disseminate hand signals that would allow for discreet communication. Technical difficulties, however, thwarted efforts to some degree: Poor mobile signals made accessing the internet a challenge and threatened to spur chaos. “Without Telegram and WhatsApp, people did not know what they had to do,” Laura, 18, a student who volunteered as a first-aid staffer, told the South China Morning Post

Holding a sign that reads “kids are not rioters.” Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

Holding a sign that reads “kids are not rioters.” Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

Limited connectivity was not the only tech-related hurdle facing protesters. Tech-savvy activists cautioned against using public Wi-Fi or swiping their Octopus public transit card, actions that could put users at risk of having their personal information picked up and employed to incriminate them. And protestors made sure to turn off Face ID and fingerprint ID on their phones so that police could not unlock their devices without consent, as well as enabling encryption on apps where it was not already automatic.

Across the border in China, however, such internet-driven activism would have been impossible. Hong Kongers have the privilege of a much more open internet—a dichotomy that has manifested starkly in mainland media coverage of the protests. As part of the mass censorship and limited access that has long defined the Chinese internet and that is sometimes dubbed the “Great Firewall of China,” the Communist Party has enacted a total blackout on protest coverage in newspapers and on TV, with television screens simply going dark when foreign news outlets show images of the demonstrations. Video footage of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam apologizing for her attempt to push through the extradition law never lasted long on social media, as censors would immediately delete the content each time it was reuploaded. And even a song that activists sang during the protests, “Can You Hear the People Sing” from “Les Miserables,” was inexplicably missing from QQ, a popular musical streaming site.

Protestors filled the streets on June 16. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

Protestors filled the streets on June 16. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

On social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo, users devised strategies to get around the firewall, like distorting images of the protests or blocking parts of the image with giant smiley-face logos. In some cases, however, China’s tech power was simply too strong: Telegram reported on June 12 that it was experiencing a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which means that a number of computers were attempting to overload its servers with bogus requests, resulting in service slowdowns or outages. Telegram’s CEO, Pavel Durov, said that the IP addresses behind the attack were coming mainly from China, potentially suggesting a concerted effort by authorities.

By systematically silencing the voices of activists, China is able to spread its own narrative of the protests, which it portrays as violent events provoked by foreign elements amining to undermine Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” policy. The policy was formulated in the 1980s for the reunification of China by Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China Deng Xiaoping; in the interest of furthering Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center, it guarantees freedom of speech and protest for citizens. Yet Hong Kongers have long feared an erosion of their autonomy, a concern that most recently boiled over in the form of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, during which streets in the city’s business district were flooded by demonstrators for nearly three months. Throughout that time, mainland China busily erased all mention and images of the protests from its internet.

Protesters were unsatisfied by the original postponement of the bill. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

Protesters were unsatisfied by the original postponement of the bill. Etan Liam. CC BY-ND 2.0

On July 8, Lam publicly stated that the bill was finally dead, describing the proposed amendment as a “total failure.” Yet Hong Kongers were not entirely satisfied, as questions remain about whether Lam will officially withdraw the bill or whether it might be revived in future. Either way, the anti-extradition movement of 2019 will stand as a landmark protest for the digital age: one whose scale and power could have only coalesced in an era of instant connectivity, and one that throws into stark relief the power of technology—for expression and repression alike.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.


Digital Nomads: Connecting to Wifi and Communities Around the Globe

With an uptick in digital nomad lifestyles and coworking tourism, how are digital nomads positively or negatively impacting the world?

Remote Year Kahlo group volunteering in Bogota, Colombia with former partner, TECHO, a Latin American organization that seeks to overcome poverty through the help of locals and volunteers. Photographer and CC Travis King.

Remote Year Kahlo group volunteering in Bogota, Colombia with former partner, TECHO, a Latin American organization that seeks to overcome poverty through the help of locals and volunteers. Photographer and CC Travis King.

Birds sing melodically against the white-washed backdrop on a sunny Greek isle as Travis King shares, over Zoom, how his passion for purposeful travel evolved into his role. King collaboratively runs social impact projects across the globe at the digital nomad program, Remote Year.

“I fell in love with the world and the way we can connect with new people and cultures,” King says. For close to five years, he did everything - from working on an Alaskan fishing boat to attaining a one year work VISA in Australia in order to extend the adventure.

“I kept working and volunteering and realized I wanted more,” King says.

When King started out as a Remote Year Program Leader, he found the group he led shared a deep interest in doing good. Each Remote Year community is a group of digital nomads that will stay together throughout the year, sharing experiences, lodging, and coworking spaces in 12 different cities around the world. 

“My community’s identity was connected to giving back. We made a commitment - every month we would do one big service event in each new city.”

Digital nomads, defined as people who choose to embrace a location-agnostic, technology-enabled lifestyle that allows them to travel and work remotely globally are increasing in numbers, according to MBO Partner's research. As of 2019, 4.8 million remote workers currently describe themselves as digital nomads, and upwards of 17 million aspire to someday become nomadic. 

“I think we’re on the tipping point of this cloud-based revolution where most laptops can connect to the internet anywhere - it gives us ultimate freedom,” King says.

As location-agnostic lifestyles continue to grow, how are digital nomads positively or negatively impacting the places they travel and how are these programs addressing social and environmental impact? 

Remote Year Ohana group volunteering in Cape Town, South Africa with partner, Phillipi Music Project, a social enterprise aiming at offering an infrastructure to the musicians from the townships. Photographer and CC Travis King.

Remote Year Ohana group volunteering in Cape Town, South Africa with partner, Phillipi Music Project, a social enterprise aiming at offering an infrastructure to the musicians from the townships. Photographer and CC Travis King.

Making an impact is in the fabric of Remote Year, according to King, but it began as one-off projects that lacked sustainable results. “The early groups were doing great things with intention and heart - but everything was scattered,” King says. 

According to King, one group would go to Buenos Aires, Argentina and plant trees in the mangroves and the next group would find an orphanage to sponsor in Cambodia, while another group would paint families’ homes outside of Medellín, Colombia. 

“We realized if we connect the efforts, our impact overtime will be magnified,” King says. 

“A lot of problems with social and environmental impact programs are it’s a one time experience and then you’re gone,” says recent Remote Year participant, Rebecca Stone. 

“The cool thing about Remote Year is my group could start working on a project, and when we left at the end of the month, there’s a new group that came to take our place,” says Stone.

Stone completed first-hand reporting and travel industry data for Skift during her Remote Year. Like the 40 others in her group, she didn’t want to put her career on hold to travel the world. Remote Year took care of the infrastructure so she could pursue her other interests, including studying tourist impact on cities.

Since Remote Year runs several long-term programs, new groups arrive on a rotating basis to the same 12 to 15 cities, which, according to Stone, mitigates unnecessary negative tourism impact. “I’m in a city like Split, Croatia for one month. I don’t take jobs away from locals. All I do is add my income into the city via eating out, participating in activities, volunteering, all while knowing my tourism dollars are going into the city.”

Now, Remote Year impact projects focus on long-term partnerships. These partnerships touch on a diverse array of social issues. “You’ll get to see a different layer of each city you wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to,” says King about those who get involved.

With a rise in volunteering while traveling among digital nomads, some argue that this can do more harm than good. Medium contributor, Paris Marx writes in an article, “Digital nomads are far less likely to work toward positive local change or halt the gentrification that displaces long-term residents .” 

When asked whether he thinks this is changing, Marx responds, “there are some people trying to ‘give back’ in various ways, but the people taking part in these programs don't actually spend much time in these cities. They consume them; they don't live in them.”

Remote Year’s Director of Community Development and Positive Impact, Travis King, volunteering with the RY Ohana group in Cape Town, South Africa, with partner, Phillipi Music Project. Photographer and CC Travis King.

Remote Year’s Director of Community Development and Positive Impact, Travis King, volunteering with the RY Ohana group in Cape Town, South Africa, with partner, Phillipi Music Project. Photographer and CC Travis King.

When asked about the criticism of volunteering abroad, King responds, “My biggest concern is that the conversation has gone too far and people would do nothing than do something, because they worry it may be considered hurtful.” He sees this as a hurdle and encourages people to always research viable organizations and causes to put energy and funding toward while traveling. 

As of 2019, Remote Year communities have volunteered 14,842 hours, worked on 312 service projects and fundraisers, raised $134,390 and engaged 2,063 locals in their efforts.

With an uptick in coworking tourism, companies like Remote Year, Unsettled, Venture with Impact, and Nomad Cruise are growing rapidly as more people seek innovative ways to take their profession on the road. 

What’s next? 

“I would love to see our net cast wider to people of a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds so everyone has an opportunity to be part of Remote Year,” says King. He shares his last stories from Valencia, Spain where they are launching a new program to help nomadic communities preserve and share their arts with the larger Spanish population. 

Lasting impact is challenging to measure. According to Marx, real impact abroad “means getting politically involved in one's community to fight for and enact social change in the interests of working-class people. There is hope for positive change but digital nomadism isn't a vehicle for broad-based political action.”

While some people, like Marx, believe digital nomads are a highly individualized group of privileged Westerners who make little positive impact on local communities, others, like King, believe in a broader approach to giving back.

A traveler who can explore and live in new countries and cultures has a unique opportunity. Some will give back, while others may not. 

In the end, whatever one is seeking abroad, an excellent way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. 

JULIA KRAMER is a New York-based writer and avid traveler who addresses systems changes to social challenges through storytelling and community building. When she’s not writing or on the road, you will find her cooking something from her urban garden or hiking. Read more of her articles on travel and social impact at


Blue Out on Insta

Sudan Flag Sticker on a Car. pjbury. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sudan Flag Sticker on a Car. pjbury. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Blue Out on Instagram: Support for Sudan through Social Media Awareness

Recently, a specific shade of blue has been popping up around Instagram in the form of profile pictures. This Blue Out was started by Instagram influencer Shahd (@hadyouatsalaam). She is a Sudanese-born, New York City-based activist—or how she likes to identify herself, “a political scientist by degree and a social media influencer by interest”, according to her recent Insta post, introducing herself to her new followers. 

Shahd created this movement for the sole purpose of raising awareness to what is currently going on in Sudan. Protests in Sudan began in December of last year, when there was a price-spike in basic commodities (i.e. bread). It was not until April 11th, after a mass, multi-day sit-in, that the Sudanese people did see the change they wished for. The current President, a man named Omar al-Bashir, and his party were being jailed or put on house arrest. The protestors believed this to be a victory. They were wrong. General Awad Ibn Auf, the Vice President, soon gave a televised statement explaining the new governmental system that was going to be put in place—one run by three separate military factions called the Transitional Military Council (TMC). He stated that they intended to remain in power for two years until the country could elect a new President, also claiming a three-month state of emergency and curfew. The people did not accept these conditions and in under 24 hours, Ibn Auf resigned and General Abdelfattah al-Burhaan become the new chairman.

Since General Abdelfattah al-Burhaan’s new appointment, negotiations between the people and the TMC have been chaotic. Once again being fed up, the Sudaneese people, with the people of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), organized a mass strike from the 28th of May to the 29th. These strikes immediately became violent and the TMC used these mass demonstrations to portray the SPA in a vicious light. On June 3rd, government forces began shooting at the protestors which, reportedly, left 118 dead and many more injured. Since then, an Internet black out has been in place and thus sparked social media outcry.

But why should this matter to us? The answer is simple: because we have the power and the privilege of accessing the Internet with the capable means of shouting loud enough that somebody will listen. Over the past two weeks, because of the uproar on social media, there have been an influx of articles written about what is going on, how long it has been going on, what is the important information that we need to know about the revolution in Sudan. One Instagram user, Rachek Cargle (@rachel,cargle), with the help of “an incredible group of activists” has even composed a masterlist of articles ranging from immediate updates to fundraising efforts, according to her post that calls for any more information to add. 

Unfortunately, with the uproar, there have also been people who cruelly want to capitalize on the movement for clout reasons. Just last week, a post went viral that claimed for every re-post to a page or story, the originators of the account would donate meals to the Sudanese people. Very soon, the page was labeled as a hoax given curious peoples’ inquiries into how they would provide the food, where is the funding coming from, and other questions which the page either did not answer or gave vague responses to. From these instances, it is important to remember that when trying to get information out, there needs to be a more thorough and conscious effort on the part of other social media users to not just mindlessly click-and-post, but rather, do a quick search about what the post is, and then determine whether or not it is legitimate. 

Using the privilege we have—whether it be from simply having the means to repost an article or getting in contact with local government officials so they can talk about what is going on—is a butterfly-effect that will change how the Sudanese revolution will go. Being complacent or a bystander is just as harmful as supporting the violence because inaction is not action, inaction does not bring about change but lets things remain as they are, because they are not directly affecting us. I encourage those of you reading this article to look at the Instagram influencers I have mentioned as well as the hashtag #Iamsudanrevolution. There you will find countless posts, articles, links, and organizations that can inform you, help you, and guide you on how you can help. For immediate action, check out Cargle’s post which is a picture of protestors with SUDAN in bold, blue letters and the subtitle of Information & Support Round Up. There you will find the link to the master document which will provide the beginning of any information you want to know. 

I must repeat—acting as a bystander perpetuates the actions that are harming individuals because it is neglecting them the action they need. Use your privilege for something productive. 

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form. 


How Small Science Is Creating Big Possibilities in Africa

Ofori Charles Antipem wears many hats—he’s an inventor, an entrepreneur and an advocate of STEM. Now, he’s bringing all his passions together, dedicating his life to bringing affordable science education to kids across Africa. The Science Set is Antipem’s creation, developed to give students access to a unique toolkit. Each set contains 45 scientific components and costs just $20. His next invention? Cheap and easy-to-assemble microscopes, carefully designed and built using 3D printed materials. 

This Great Big Story was made possible by IBM Africa.

Can Genetic Engineering Save Disappearing Forests?

Ash tree killed by the invasive emerald ash borer.  K Steve Cope

Ash tree killed by the invasive emerald ash borer. K Steve Cope

Compared to gene-edited babies in China and ambitious projects to rescue woolly mammoths from extinction, biotech trees might sound pretty tame.

But releasing genetically engineered trees into forests to counter threats to forest health represents a new frontier in biotechnology. Even as the techniques of molecular biology have advanced, humans have not yet released a genetically engineered plant that is intended to spread and persist in an unmanaged environment. Biotech trees – genetically engineered or gene-edited – offer just that possibility.

One thing is clear: The threats facing our forests are many, and the health of these ecosystems is getting worse. A 2012 assessment by the U.S. Forest Service estimated that nearly 7 percent of forests nationwide are in danger of losing at least a quarter of their tree vegetation by 2027. This estimate may not sound too worrisome, but it is 40 percent higher than the previous estimate made just six years earlier.

In 2018, at the request of several U.S. federal agencies and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed a committee to “examine the potential use of biotechnology to mitigate threats to forest tree health.” Experts, including me, a social scientist focused on emerging biotechnologies, were asked to “identify the ecological, ethical, and social implications of deploying biotechnology in forests, and develop a research agenda to address knowledge gaps.”

Our committee members came from universities, federal agencies and NGOs and represented a range of disciplines: molecular biology, economics, forest ecology, law, tree breeding, ethics, population genetics and sociology. All of these perspectives were important for considering the many aspects and challenges of using biotechnology to improve forest health.

More than 80 million acres are at risk of losing at least 25 percent of tree vegetation between 2013 and 2027 due to insects and diseases.  Krist et al. (2014) ,  CC BY-SA

More than 80 million acres are at risk of losing at least 25 percent of tree vegetation between 2013 and 2027 due to insects and diseases. Krist et al. (2014)CC BY-SA

A Crisis in US forests

Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg. Forests face higher temperatures and droughts and more pests. As goods and people move around the globe, even more insects and pathogens hitchhike into our forests.

The emerald ash borer is destroying ash trees in 31 states.  Herman Wong HM/

The emerald ash borer is destroying ash trees in 31 states. Herman Wong HM/

The emerald ash borer feeds on ash trees, damaging and eventually killing them.  K Steve Cope/

The emerald ash borer feeds on ash trees, damaging and eventually killing them. K Steve Cope/

We focused on four case studies to illustrate the breadth of forest threats. The emerald ash borer arrived from Asia and causes severe mortality in five species of ash trees. First detected on U.S. soil in 2002, it had spread to 31 states as of May 2018. Whitebark pine, a keystone and foundational species in high elevations of the U.S. and Canada, is under attack by the native mountain pine beetle and an introduced fungus. Over half of whitebark pine in the northern U.S. and Canada have died.

Poplar trees are important to riparian ecosystems as well as for the forest products industry. A native fungal pathogen, Septoria musiva, has begun moving west, attacking natural populations of black cottonwood in Pacific Northwest forests and intensively cultivated hybrid poplar in Ontario. And the infamous chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia to North America in the late 1800s, wiped out billions of American chestnut trees.

Can biotech come to the rescue? Should it?

It’s complicated

Although there are many potential applications of biotechnology in forests, such as genetically engineering insect pests to suppress their populations, we focused specifically on biotech trees that could resist pests and pathogens. Through genetic engineering, for example, researchers could insert genes, from a similar or unrelated species, that help a tree tolerate or fight an insect or fungus.

It’s tempting to assume that the buzz and enthusiasm for gene editing will guarantee quick, easy and cheap solutions to these problems. But making a biotech tree will not be easy. Trees are large and long-lived, which means that research to test the durability and stability of an introduced trait will be expensive and take decades or longer. We also don’t know nearly as much about the complex and enormous genomes of trees, compared to lab favorites such as fruit flies and the mustard plant, Arabidopsis.

In addition, because trees need to survive over time and adapt to changing environments, it is essential to preserve and incorporate their existing genetic diversity into any “new” tree. Through evolutionary processes, tree populations already have many important adaptations to varied threats, and losing those could be disastrous. So even the fanciest biotech tree will ultimately depend on a thoughtful and deliberate breeding program to ensure long-term survival. For these reasons, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee recommends increasing investment not just in biotechnology research, but also in tree breeding, forest ecology and population genetics.

Oversight challenges

The committee found that the U.S. Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, which distributes federal oversight of biotechnology products among agencies such as EPA, USDA and FDA, is not fully prepared to consider the introduction of a biotech tree to improve forest health.

Most obviously, regulators have always required containment of pollen and seeds during biotech field trials to avoid the escape of genetic material. For example, the biotech chestnut was not allowed to flower to ensure that transgenic pollen wouldn’t blow across the landscape during field trials. But if biotech trees are intended to spread their new traits, via seeds and pollen, to introduce pest resistance across landscapes, then studies of wild reproduction will be necessary. These are not currently allowed until a biotech tree is fully deregulated.

The family of James and Caroline Shelton poses by a large dead chestnut tree in Tremont Falls, Tennessee, circa 1920.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park Library ,  CC BY-SA

The family of James and Caroline Shelton poses by a large dead chestnut tree in Tremont Falls, Tennessee, circa 1920. Great Smoky Mountains National Park LibraryCC BY-SA

Another shortcoming of the current framework is that some biotech trees may not require any special review at all. The USDA, for example, was asked to consider a loblolly pine that was genetically engineered for greater wood density. But because USDA’s regulatory authority stems from its oversight of plant pest risks, it decided that it did not have any regulatory authority over that biotech tree. Similar questions remain regarding organisms whose genes are edited using new tools such as CRISPR.

The committee noted that U.S. regulations fail to promote a comprehensive consideration of forest health. Although the National Environmental Policy Act sometimes helps, some risks and many potential benefits are unlikely to be evaluated. This is the case for biotech trees as well as other tools to counter pests and pathogens, such as tree breeding, pesticides and site management practices.

How do you measure the value of a forest?

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report suggests an “ecosystem services” framework for considering the various ways that trees and forests provide value to humans. These range from extraction of forest products to the use of forests for recreation to the ecological services a forest provides – water purification, species protection and carbon storage.

The committee also acknowledged that some ways of valuing the forest do not fit into the ecosystem services framework. For example, if forests are seen by some to have “intrinsic value,” then they have value in and of themselves, apart from the way humans value them and perhaps implying a kind of moral obligation to protect and respect them. Issues of “wildness” and “naturalness” also surface.

Chestnuts lying on the ground in autumn near a chestnut tree.  Peter Wollinga/

Chestnuts lying on the ground in autumn near a chestnut tree. Peter Wollinga/

Wild nature?

Paradoxically, a biotech tree could increase and decrease wildness. If wildness depends upon a lack of human intervention, then a biotech tree will reduce the wildness of a forest. But perhaps so would a conventionally bred, hybrid tree that was deliberately introduced into an ecosystem.

Which would reduce wildness more – the introduction of a biotech tree or the eradication of an important tree species? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but they remind us of the complexity of decisions to use technology to enhance “nature.”

This complexity points to a key recommendation of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report: dialogue among experts, stakeholders and communities about how to value forests, assess the risks and potential benefits of biotech, and understand complex public responses to any potential interventions, including those involving biotechnology. These processes need to be respectful, deliberative, transparent and inclusive.

Such processes, such as a 2018 stakeholder workshop on the biotech chestnut, will not erase conflict or even guarantee consensus, but they have the potential to create insight and understanding that can feed into democratic decisions that are informed by expert knowledge and public values.

JASON A DELBORNE is an Associate Professor of Science, Policy, and Society in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University


I Teach Refugees to Map their World

A scene from Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. Brian Tomaszewski

A scene from Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. Brian Tomaszewski

I first visited the Zaatari refugee camp in early 2015. Located in northern Jordan, the camp is home to more than 80,000 Syrian refugees. I was there as part of a research study on refugee camp wireless and information infrastructure

It’s one thing to read about refugees in the news. It’s a whole different thing to actually go visit a camp. I saw people living in metal caravans, mixed with tents and other materials to create a sense of home. Many used improvised electrical systems to keep the power going. People are rebuilding their lives to create a better future for their families and themselves, just like any of us would if faced with a similar situation.

As a geographer, I was quickly struck by how geographically complex Zaatari camp was. The camp management staff faced serious spatial challenges. By “spatial challenges,” I mean issues that any small city might face, such as keeping track of the electrical grid; understanding where people live within the camp; and locating other important resources, such as schools, mosques and health centers. Officials at Zaatari had some maps of the camp, but they struggled to keep up with its ever-changing nature. 

An experiment I launched there led to up-to-date maps of the camp and, I hope, valuable training for some of its residents.

The power of maps

Like many other refugee camps, Zaatari developed quickly in response to a humanitarian emergency. In rapid onset emergencies, mapping often isn’t as high of a priority as basic necessities like food, water and shelter. 

However, my research shows that maps can be an invaluable tool in a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis. Modern digital mapping tools have been essential for locating resources and making decisions in a number of crises, from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to the refugee influx in Rwanda.

This got me thinking that the refugees themselves could be the best people to map Zaatari. They have intimate knowledge of the camp’s layout, understand where important resources are located and benefit most from camp maps. 

With these ideas in mind, my lab teamed up with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Al-Balqa and Princess Sumaya universities in Jordan. 

Modern maps are often made with a technology known as Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. Using funding from the UNHCR Innovation Fund, we acquired the computer hardware to create a GIS lab. From corporate partner Esri, we were obtained low-cost, professional GIS software.

RefuGIS team member Yusuf Hamad and his son Abdullah – who was born in Zaatari refugee camp – learning about GIS. Brian Tomaszewski,  CC BY

RefuGIS team member Yusuf Hamad and his son Abdullah – who was born in Zaatari refugee camp – learning about GIS. Brian Tomaszewski, CC BY

Over a period of about 18 months, we trained 10 Syrian refugees. Students in the RefuGIS class ranged in age from 17 to 60. Their backgrounds from when they lived in Syria ranged from being a math teacher to a tour operator to a civil engineer. I was extremely fortunate that one of my students, Yusuf Hamad, spoke fluent English and was able translate my instructions into Arabic for the other students. 

We taught concepts such as coordinate systems, map projections, map design and geographic visualization; we also taught how to collect spatial data in the field using GPS. The class then used this knowledge to map places of interest in the camp, such as the locations of schools, mosques and shops.

The class also learned how to map data using mobile phones. The data has been used to update camp reference maps and to support a wide range of camp activities. 

I made a particular point to ensure the class could learn how to do these tasks on their own. This was important: No matter how well-intentioned a technological intervention is, it will often fall apart if the displaced community relies completely on outside people to make it work. 

As a teacher, this class was my most satisfying educational experience. This was perhaps my finest group of GIS students across all the types of students I have taught over my 15 years of teaching. Within a relatively short amount of time, they were able to create professional maps that now serve camp management staff and refugees themselves.

A map created with geographic information collected by students in the RefuGIS program. UNHCR,  CC BY

A map created with geographic information collected by students in the RefuGIS program. UNHCR, CC BY

Jobs for refugees

My experiences training refugees and humanitarian professionals in Jordan and Rwandahave made me reflect upon the broader possibilities that GIS can bring to the over 65 million refugees in the world today

It’s challenging for refugees to develop livelihoods at a camp. Many struggle to find employment after leaving. 

GIS could help refugees create a better future for themselves and their future homes. If people return to their home countries, maps – essential to activities like construction and transportation – can aid the rebuilding process. If they adopt a new home country, they may find they have marketable skills. The worldwide geospatial industry is worth an estimated US$400 billion and geospatial jobs are expected to grow over the coming years

Our team is currently helping some of the refugees get GIS industry certifications. This can further expand their career opportunities when they leave the camp and begin to rebuild their lives. 

Technology training interventions for refugees often focus on things like computer programmingweb development and other traditional IT skills. However, I would argue that GIS should be given equal importance. It offers a rich and interactive way to learn about people, places and spatial skills – things that I think the world in general needs more of. Refugees could help lead the way.

BRIAN TOMASZEWSKI is an Associate Professor of Information Sciences and Technologies at Rochester Institute of Technology. 



How to Enjoy Travel Without Social Media


DID YOU KNOW that if a tree falls in the woods and you don’t post the video to your Instagram story, it still actually happened? I’m aware of the irony of writing about a topic like this on a popular travel website, where, if all goes well, it will be retweeted, shared on Facebook, and maybe even receive a video response on YouTube (please?), but there are ways to enjoy traveling without social media.

Low-tech travel is still an option

Some travelers get the idea that getting offline also means completely cutting themselves off from technology, when in fact a simple reduction will do. Leaving your phone at home and using a calling card to stay in touch may be annoying, but isn’t it worth removing the temptation of snapping a selfie? Just because we no longer live in a world where Polaroid cameras are ubiquitous doesn’t mean they aren’t out there to capture memories. If you use your blog primarily as an outlet for your creativity and not as a form of income, you can try jotting your experiences down on paper. Travel like it’s 1999.

Time goes further without technology

You may not be able to look back on what happened one day ten years ago in Thailand without some digital photographic evidence, but if you spent that time bathing elephants and getting drunk with expats you’re going to remember the experience better without wasting time documenting everything as it’s happening. My weekends in Japan usually fly by when I’m traveling solo and stop to write on my Macbook or scroll through IG on my phone, but when two Couchsurfers came to visit and we spent the whole day talking and exploring, I couldn’t help but appreciate how much longer the days seemed to last. Being mindful during your travels means taking the minute between when your food is served not to find the perfect angle for a picture, but instead reflect on how fortunate you are to have this nourishment in this foreign country with good friends.

Live your life without online feedback

Social media has fundamentally changed how we communicate in many ways, but probably none more than allowing snapshots of our lives to receive immediate feedback from the whole world. We’ve probably all taken a picture of a scene like a sunset over the ocean with the intention of wanting to know want other people think about it, without taking the time to wonder whether we actually like it in the first place.

Your travel experiences have value even if no else sees your picture and gives it a like. Seeing someone’s expression in person and understanding their reaction to your temple stay and spiritual awakening (even if it’s an eye roll) are going to mean more to you than someone writing a cliché comment with an emoji.

Think about where you travel, and why

I had a falling out with a friend last year after – having discussed the issue of the treatment of elephants at length – she chose to ride on one in Asia in a stereotypical tourist fashion. When I quite angrily asked what the hell she was thinking, knowing full well she was aware of how these animals were tortured, she casually replied “Yeah, well, I wanted a selfie with one.”

Think about your motivation in traveling to a place like Macchu Picchu or posing with a tiger… is it something you genuinely want to do, or just something you think would look pretty sweet on Instagram? Take away that incentive, and would you still go there, or do that?

Traveling without social media forces you to focus on why you travel, knowing that people may still hear about the story ex post facto, but you completely control the narrative. Why work yourself to death squeezing in another attraction before sunset to make sure it’s posted during prime viewing time if no one is going to see it? Avoiding social media generally gives you quality over quantity.




Turner Wright is a marathon runner first, an adventurer second, and a writer through it all. Apparently, he has a thing for island nations, having lived in Japan, and soon to be headed for New Zealand. Check out his adventures at Once a Traveler.