Here’s a wonderful story merging technology and love.
For starters, Asma Jaber and Sami Jitan, two diaspora Palestinians, were awarded the $25,000 Grand Prize at Harvard Innovation Lab‘s 2014 Entrepreneurship Challenge for their visionary project, a mobile app called PIVOT. The app, which will peel back layers of time of a specific place, includes interactive audio/video features, oral histories and augmented reality. The app will first focus on locations in Palestine and Harvard University but will launch for users all over the world.
Jaber and Jitan, PIVOT’s CEO and COO respectively, are passionate about their app. The story behind PIVOT’s founding is woven with threads of coincidence/destiny. While at first glance the app is an enticing, entertainment tourism tool allowing users to “PIVOT the World” through virtual tours from specific locations– called PIVOT Points– it has the potential to transform the way people all over the globe experience and preserve cultures and history – especially the preservation of one’s own heritage.
Now in beta phase, with developers in Palestine (managed by Palestinian-American owned iConnect — headquartered in Chicago) and freelance designers in Jordan, PIVOT’s team is inviting people to try out the app and they’ve initiated a Kickstarter campaign to take the project to the next level. I spoke with Jaber and Jitan earlier this week, and their priority is preserving histories and heritages in countries with rich cultures at risk of becoming extinct. Iraq and Syria are their next target regions.
And here’s where it gets exciting, an easy-to-use crowd-sourcing content management system (CMS) will also enable everyday users to update the mobile-app platform in real time. Plus, there will be features (“shoe-box archiving“) aimed at “mobilizing communities” to record their own history, and enabling users to create their own “PIVOT points” as well as potentially building and owning PIVOT tours of their neighborhoods, towns, or cities – and sharing those tours with friends:
For Jaber and Jitan, the project has an urgent personal quality that is crucially connected to “building a community”. In fact, they call it a “movement” a “mission to connect people” to histories that matter to them, not to mention being a “living breathing” child that keeps them up at all hours of the night.
It’s not surprising under the circumstances. Asma and Sami met on Nakba Day, stuck at the border between Palestine and Jordan, both held up by border guards who refused to release them because of their Palestinian identities and American passports. Coincidentally it was the exact location Asma’s father, Samir Yousef Jaber, was exiled from Palestine decades ago. A refugee, Samir Jaber eventually settled in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, where Asma was raised. Originally from Nazareth, he created Palestine for his family in Travelers Rest by planting olive and fruit trees and so much more. Jaber told me she felt connected to Palestine because her Dad brought it to life for her. He literally recreated Palestine for her family in South Carolina. Oddly, Sami Jitan lived very near Travelers Rest as a child (the next town over), though their paths had not crossed before that day.
Tragically, a few months after that meeting Asma’s father died at 66. It was during the months that followed, experiencing an incredible void in her life, that Jaber became inspired to preserve her father’s heritage and her own:
“The first time I visited Historic Palestine after my father passed away, I felt lost. 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.”
A year later, Jaber and Jitan turned that idea into a reality, and PIVOT was born. I ask Jaber, who has led hundreds of students on Harvard Kennedy School student-led Treks of Palestine, about access to Israel, inside the green line. As it turns out, PIVOT is teaming up with Zochrot. Then I got an earful about how Palestinian tour operators aren’t allowed access inside ’48, Bethlehem’s tourist industry, Historic Palestine’s billion dollar tourist industry, the high concentration of World Heritage Sites (pdf), and did I know Palestinians only got 3% of that? Plus,”The beauty of the virtual companion is that tourists from the diaspora can lead their own excursions without being present.”
“My passion is building a community people will use – our mission to connect people to the histories that matter to them. It was a great day for Palestine the day we won the grand prize…a fantastic day.”
And what if she had not missed that bus earlier in the day? Or if had he not lent her his Edward Said book?
Jitan: “The first thing I said to my future fiancée was, “Can you believe this shit, we can’t even leave our own country much less enter as we please?”
Sounds like destiny to me. If you have a second, check out their Kickstarter and let’s make this happen. I can totally imagine this app spreading all across the world, and realistically, why shouldn’t it all begin in Palestine?