Teaching Data Science in Palestine: Things I learned

The first thing I should mention is that I am a computer programmer and a former startup CEO, not an activist. I spent the last 3 years at Dropbox after my company Parastructure was acquired in 2014. After leaving Dropbox, I wanted to teach, so I designed a course on data science & visualization that built upon what I had learned from scaling Parastructure’s data analysis technology within Dropbox. A friend heard about the course and asked me to teach it at a Coding + Design Bootcamp he was piloting in Palestine. I quickly accepted the offer — I have always wanted to visit Jerusalem and learn about the history and politics of the Middle East. I didn’t go with an agenda — I felt that teaching would add to the experience of my trip and allow me to better understand the true nature of living in the region.

Bootcamp students watching a lesson on Deep Neural Networks

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Palestine is probably one of the last places you would think to visit. There isn’t much on the news about it other than stories of violence or politics — as a result, it is perceived by many of us as either a refugee camp or a war zone. There is oppression in Palestine but such views do not describe the heart of the culture or the people. In this post, I want to share some of my experiences from the time I spent teaching in the region and perhaps provide you with the inspiration to visit or volunteer in Palestine yourself. So, without further ado, here are a few of the things I learned while in Palestine…

There are really smart programmers in Palestine

I was a teaching assistant at Stanford for 2 years while attending graduate school. One the classes I helped teach was Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (CS221) in 2011 with Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. The professors decided to offer the class online through a website called “ai-class.org” and we had students from all over the world take it. This was the first time I realized that there was a huge pool of talent in this world — many of the highest scoring students came from places as diverse as Ukraine or India. After this experience, Sebastian went on to co-found Udacity, one of the first online colleges. When I arrived to teach Data Science in Palestine I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the quality of the students. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. The students blazed through the coursework and digested information rapidly. By the end of the course, we were working on the advanced mathematics needed to implement Deep Neural Networks in TensorFlow! The students did all this while also completing a Nanodegree in Android Development from Udacity.
It was amazing to see the impact that 4-weeks of intense online learning, mixed with smart and inspiring volunteers, could have on talented young students.

There is a lack of opportunities

Unfortunately, many of the talented young people I met during my trip lacked the opportunities that they would have had in another country. The sad part of it is that many of these limitations are a direct result of occupation rather than a general lack of economic prosperity in the region. When we think of occupation we usually think of short intense periods of violence: soldiers, riots, detention. The true nature of occupation is more mundane for most Palestinians but no less dehumanizing. One of the students in my course, Maysra, has dreams of starting his own technology company and joined the program to better understand the technologies and design skills needed to accomplish this. His home, in Nablus, is approximately 25 miles from Ramallah. Unfortunately, the actual journey ends up taking him 2 to 3 hours (each way) because of the circuitous route and frequent checkpoints. The checkpoints themselves are staffed by soldiers armed with assault weapons. They often detain or delay people arbitrarily or close the checkpoints without warning — I even experienced this myself going through the Kalandia crossing to go sightseeing in Jerusalem.

Students from all over the West Bank came to Ramallah to attend the 4-week intensive bootcamp.

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Another student wanted to develop an application for Spotify but was unable to pay for a full-account because of sanctions and limitations placed upon the Palestinian banking system. To buy online services he had to mail gift cards to relatives in the US, who would then pay for his accounts (these restrictions aren’t limited to traditional banking). It may seem trivial but when combined together such limitations make it difficult for talented people and firms within the West Bank to compete for opportunities that they are fully qualified for. Yet some of these limitations gave inspiration to my students — they had many unique ideas on applications for technologies like Bitcoin, borne of the unique adversities that they faced.

Silicon Valley is already influencing Palestine

The irony of leaving San Francisco to find myself playing ping pong at a tech company in the West Bank does not escape me. Two of the students in my class worked for a travel platform called Yamsafer. They have over 70 employees and had just raised a Series B after gaining ground in the Middle Eastern hotel-booking niche against competition from Expedia and Travelocity. I got a chance to sit down with the CEO & CTO over lunch and we talked in depth about the challenges they faced with hiring and scaling the company — especially with regards to company culture. The offices were hip and modern, and from what I could tell there was very little bureaucracy and a “get things done”/ “move fast” type of attitude. I also learned that Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe, had recently visited to speak with members of the technology community.  It was cool to see Silicon Valley culture being effective all over the world.

The offices of Yamsafer, a startup travel booking website based out of Ramallah, Palestine.

Yamsafer office
The bootcamp also took a lot of inspiration from incubators such as YCombinator within the Valley — they  took only the best and the brightest computer science students and put them through a very intensive, high-commitment 4-week program and surrounded them with smart mentors from schools like MIT and companies like Facebook, McKinsey, and IDEO.

Palestine is a vibrant cultural center

The city has a population of only 57,000 people but feels much, much bigger. The cool spots are open until late at night, even on the weekdays. One of the most magical venues I visited there was called “Snowbar”. You walk down into a clearing in the center of a forest and trees create the walls and ceilings of the restaurant. There are couches, firepits, and hookah along with a swimming pool. White vintage bicycles hang from the tree branches and Pink Floyd blasts from the speakers. It’s a surreal, post-apocalyptic party on a deserted tropical island kind of vibe. You don’t usually think of Palestine as a cultural center, there is a rich bar scene with venues like Radio and Garage offering a place for local musicians to perform.

Chilean-Palestinian/French artist Nicolas Jaar performing in Ramallah, Palestine.

Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 3.17.00 PMPalestine is also home to some amazing art. Most people have seen work regarding the conflict from artist/activists such as Banksy. As a painter, I was always been inspired by the subtle wit of Banksy’s work and his art was actually what first got me interested in learning about Palestine. There are many amazing Banksy pieces along the separation wall and he even developed a museum, hotel and art gallery called “The Walled Off Hotel” in Bethlehem. The museum was co-developed with a professor from the UK and provides a detailed historical account of the region. I encourage people to visit these tourist attractions but to be self-aware regarding the limitations that art and touristic experiences have in communicating the true nature of occupation. I think the words of the Palestinian artist Hasan Hourani in Frieze [one of the most widely respected contemporary art magazines] describe it best: “The occupation of Palestine is a mind-boggling experiment in the mass degradation of a people, and as such – to put it bluntly – it is often perceived as exotic and sensational by the art world.”

A mural by artist Banksy on the border wall in Bethlehem, Palestine.

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I highly recommend anyone that is visiting Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv to take the time to also visit Bethlehem and Ramallah. Both of these cities have some really cool spots and give a huge amount of perspective on this age-old conflict. Tours like Breaking the Silence can give you the perspective of Israelis that have actively participated in occupation. If you are looking for opportunities to teach in Palestine get in touch. For travel tips ways to connect in the tech sector, check out visitPalestine.tech.

Happy Travels!