By Robert Trigwell, REACH Initiative. This article first appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of the RSGS’s magazine, The Geographer.

Al Za’atari Camp, located 15km south of the Jordan-Syria border, is the second-largest refugee camp in the world and the fifth-largest city in Jordan, despite only having its first anniversary last July. At one point it was home to 120,000 people; however, these numbers have steadily decreased, with more and more people finding refuge in the larger cities of Jordan, as well as in Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. The REACH Initiative has been applying novel ways to make data from the ‘field’ in Al Za’atari Camp accessible to the international aid community, to support humanitarian planning and to meet information gaps in order to improve the lives of people living in Al Za’atari.

Setting the context:

Al Za’atari is a chaotic environment, not through mismanagement but through the ever changing situations and contexts in the camp, which are largely dependent on what is going on north of the border in Syria. Population influxes are extremely dependent on locations of hostilities within areas of Syria for instance, and with every new person into the camp, the context changes. Therefore, with the population of Al Za’atari refugee camp changing over time, humanitarian actors are constantly challenged to plan and implement life-saving services. The purpose of REACH (implementing partner of UNHCR) is to ensure evidence-based programming and to make data accessible to all on open data platforms, so that when interventions are happening, the decision-makers are not doing them ‘data-blind’ but instead are using reliable information to make a real difference to the residents of the camp.

What we have been doing:

rsgs-blogpostSince November 2012, REACH has been conducting regular assessments regarding camp infrastructures and assessments at the household level. All data is collected on an open source mobile application called ODK (Open Data Kit) so all data collected can be available the same day. In an emergency environment, regular and up-to-date information is pivotal to effective aid implementation, and therefore exploring new technologies in order to implement this is a key point of the work done by REACH. Some of the work REACH has been doing over the past year has been the following: weekly assessments of the communal bathrooms to ensure regular maintenance; household- level assessments for equality of living standards; the mapping of street leader boundaries; the mapping of the infrastructure in the camp; as well as the start-up of the first ever cadastral system in the camp and all the corresponding data analysis.

The focal point for REACH’s activities in Jordanian camps:

Al Za’atari is not an easy place to work, but it is a rewarding one. People from all the UN agencies and the NGO community are doing a fantastic job to try and help the Syrian people at this terrible time for them. The camp is dynamic, and as a result there isn’t really an ‘8-5’. Of course we try and keep to our work plan for the week, but you never know what is going to come up that day. Being on top of the security situation is a good way to ensure my staff are safe and can work effectively.

Each day I am in awe of the resourcefulness and kindness of the Syrian people. The residents alone have built a bustling market street, coined the the ‘Champs- Élysées’, with at least 600-800 different shops and businesses. The falafel is out of this world. This market provides many items to the camp that aren’t available through official distributions, so people are using their initiative to serve their own community and provide comfort at this difficult time. Each household composition is slightly different from the other, despite having access to the same resources, another sign of the resourcefulness and initiative of the residents. It is hard to make your way down one of the 227 streets in the camp, each with a self-appointed street leader (street mayor) without being invited for chai tea somewhere. The self- resilience of the Za’atari residents gives me hope for Syria, despite what may be waiting for them when they return.