Navigating Lebanon historically hinges on an informal system of landmarks and an intimate knowledge of streets and shops. Over the past several years, however, various groups have begun working to change the way newcomers and residents negotiate the country’s urban environments. For some, the goal is to completely alter current practices for mapping and planning. Others are working toward smaller-scale changes to make the city a more livable place. “The people behind the unique locations in Beirut are what make the city what it is,” said Bahi Ghubril, the founder of Zawarib, a leading mapping company based in Beirut.Zawarib was one of the first companies to focus on comprehensively mapping the city and its surroundings. Founded in 2005, its work has gone through several phases, beginning with projects designed to make navigating the city easier by identifying notable landmarks.The original product was based on what Zawarib calls “points of reference.” These are distinctive landmarks that travelers can use to orient themselves or find directions. Categories include hospitals, universities and shopping malls, or even small but identifiable shops and pharmacies.“We weren’t trying to build a new infrastructure, because that is impossible without long-term strategic study and implementation,” Ghubril said. Instead, he explained, Zawarib’s goal was simply to make travel more efficient. “It becomes less of a treasure hunt and more about getting to a place,” he said.Zawarib has since branched out into more projects, including its well-known city guide. These point out unique and popular shops and businesses that are nonetheless often difficult to find.Other mapping projects in Beirut and Lebanon focus on the concrete infrastructure that underpins urban environments. For some groups, this work has centered on implementing a unified system of street addresses throughout the country. Though many cities and towns have street names and addresses, they are rarely used and even more rarely consistent across different areas.“Even before the Civil War, Lebanon didn’t have a proper addressing system of numbers and names of streets,” said Ronnie Richa, marketing manager at LibanPost – the private company tasked with managing Lebanon’s postal services. “After the war, of course, the situation just got worse.”According to Richa, the speed and lack of oversight of development throughout the city has also made the situation difficult. “Every municipality now seems to have their own way of naming and numbering streets,” he said.This massive barrier to entry hasn’t stopped some groups from attempting similar projects – including LibanPost itself. One project initiated several years ago focused on a system called natural area code (NAC) tagging. Based on condensing GPS coordinates into an eight-digit series of numbers and letters, NAC would be implemented by assigning each building a unique code.LibanPost decided to test the possibility of implementing NAC tagging in Lebanon in 2013. According to Mario Chartouny, IT director at LibanPost, the system was attractive because of the inconsistencies in country’s addressing system.Despite the potential advantages to such a system however, the program has not yet been implemented. Echoing Ghubril’s concerns over the sheer scale of projects designed to overhaul Lebanon’s addressing system, Chartouny explained that “practically, the implementation had its challenges. For the time being the project is frozen.”Though NAC tagging is currently off the table for LibanPost, other independent organizations are working on similar ideas. One of these groups, NavLeb, has adopted a different project based on U.S. address systems.Launched in 2006, the company has worked primarily with smaller municipalities to create comprehensive systems of street numbers and addresses. “We also collect data on infrastructure, lights, telephone poles, manhole covers, trees and sidewalks,” said George Hajj, founder of NavLeb.Though NavLeb has had success in their local work with municipalities in Metn, Kesrouan and Mount Lebanon, they have run into some of the same issues of implementation. “There should be government support for municipal level projects like this,” Hajj said. “But we don’t yet have this kind of support, and unfortunately, not all municipalities have the capital to invest in this.”Hajj remained enthusiastic about the potential for groups like NavLeb. He cited improved tax collection, shipping, urban planning and directions as potential benefits.Similar infrastructure-oriented goals drive a different mapping project run by Public Interest Design, based in the industrial area of Mkalles, just outside of Beirut.For PID’s Neighborhood Development Initiative, mapping their local area is a means of simultaneously improving local infrastructure while also encouraging Mkalles’ economy. “We are looking at the area to see why people come here, what is of interest, and what would bring them back,” said Tess Stucke, a project coordinator at PID.In the future, the initiative hopes to begin work on beautification projects in the neighborhood, including improving road conditions, painting facades and creating small green spaces. Though the goal is ultimately urban renewal, according to Stucke, a comprehensive visual understanding of the area is integral to implementing this work.“Knowing what is in the surrounding area is incredibly useful,” she said. “People will be less reluctant to come here if we can improve the street experience, and it also encourages more businesses to come.”According to Stucke, mapping is the prerequisite for all of this. “You need to collect data,” she said. “Data drives action.” Rhys Dubin| The Daily Star
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 03, 2016, on page 3.