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Ramallah, Palestine: Smart City, Freedom Through Technology

2018-07-30

Situated in the central West Bank, Ramallah, a word derived from the terms of height and "Allah" -- Arabic for God, is a Palestinian city at an average elevation of 880 meters above sea level. The city has experienced rapid growth since 1994 after the initial establishment of the Palestinian Authority.


However, political factors prevent the maximum utilization of technologies such as 3G or 4G networks, not allowing Ramallah citizens to gain proper access to stable internet services, not to mention the e-government services. Adding to their woes, residents and students from other cities are not allowed to come to Ramallah to live and study due to the restriction on people's free movement caused by the current political situation. Other Palestinian citizens were also unable to handle municipal affairs in Ramallah.


In 2013, the Ramallah municipality launched an independent initiative -- Smart City, Freedom Through Technology, with one of its strategic goals targeting the improvement of service quality and the construction of an electronic city.


The project managed to break various barriers through utilizing advanced technologies enabling them to access network services and improve service quality. Information and communication technologies (ICT) are applied to integrate with intelligent devices in many aspects, making education, life, health care, planning and governance smart.


Ramallah aims to enhance relations and communications with the local community, provide quality 24/7 services the need of citizens' being present in many aspects, provide information to the public on the activities and public events organized by the municipality, and gain feedback from citizens on the services provided by the municipality.


Free wifi services launched by the governor, the mayor and the private sectors in Ramallah, Palestine. [Photo provided to guangzhouaward.org]


To this end, internal policies and procedures have been significantly reengineered to be compatible with the new databases and technological tools. For example, each department of the municipality has an application on the GIS (Geographic Information System) which has become a part of the work flow and documentation procedures. Now, the municipality does not accept applications that are not electronic, in order to facilitate the processing of application, tracking and timely responses. Other GIS applications are used to report incidents and complaints and track them.


In the Ramallah municipality, wifi services are accessible at most primary streets through fiber optic network solutions. In public places including libraries, parks and entertainment centers, free network connection and municipal services are also offered, enabling residents and tourists to enjoy wifi services throughout the city.


Since Google Earth is restricted in the West Bank, the project provides an alternative for navigation. The project also included the installation of cameras at major intersections with live streaming. The cameras were extremely useful during emergencies and snowy days. It helped individuals and investors develop applications for visitors, such as e-payments for parking spots.


The project's smooth and fast implementation was done through public-private partnership and collaboration between experts from academia and PITA (Palestinian Information Technology Association of Companies). It also received technical support from private telecommunications sector, in addition to financial support from international donors, such as GIZ (German Technical Cooperation) and USAID (United States Agency for International Development).


Electronic map of Ramallah Municipality. [Photo provided to guangzhouaward.org]


Besides, the MOLG (Ministry of Local Government) provided full support, adopting the GIS component as a national model working on disseminating it to other municipalities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


The project has achieved a major measurable impact, more than initially anticipated, which can be demonstrated through the number of hits on the municipality's website and the increasing number of citizens using the municipality e-services. Additionally, there has been an upsurge in private sector investment in the technology sector in Ramallah, as demonstrated in the number of applications developed by private sector companies and individual investors relying on some aspects of the project. There has also been a significant increase in the number of citizens participating and attending public events organized by the municipality (mainly due to the advertising capacities of the project) and an increase in the number of advertisements using digital screens that have been erected in certain parts of the city as part of the project. Due to the infrastructure provided by the project, the municipal council decided to broadcast at least one session of its weekly meetings allowing citizens and stakeholders to view the session, thus increasing transparency of the work of the council.


The innovative practice also helps promote Ramallah's global exposure, as several cities in Arabic countries and around the world signed friendly-city agreements with the municipality to explore cooperation and exchange experience on construction of a smart city. Ramallah has become a model in this field.


The project has entered its second phase where both primary and secondary streets will be covered with wireless network services, and more applications and tools will be introduced to improve service efficiency and quality. Private sectors and innovative people are also encouraged to create more applications for a smarter city.