Bedouin teens develop Moovit-like app for school kids in Negev villages

Over a dozen youths complete five-week tech program for Bedouin community, backed by MIT, Ben-Gurion University

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Tech Israel editor and reporter.

17 Bedouin teenagers and youths, aged 16-20, took part in the 'Digital Tent' tech program in the summer of 2022, an initiative by the Siraj NGO in collaboration with MIT and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. (Siraj)
17 Bedouin teenagers and youths, aged 16-20, took part in the 'Digital Tent' tech program in the summer of 2022, an initiative by the Siraj NGO in collaboration with MIT and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. (Siraj)

A “Bedouin Moovit” bus app, a nanodevice for tracking plant health, and a smart bracelet that helps those with vision impairments avoid obstacles were among the final projects developed this summer by a group of Bedouin teenagers in the Negev region as part of a new tech training program specifically for Bedouin youth.

Over a dozen Bedouin teens were selected for the five-week boot camp, dubbed “Digital Tent,” a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Siraj, a non-profit organization dedicated to integrating members of the Bedouin community into Israel’s celebrated high-tech sector with its coveted high salaries.

The local tech industry is made up mostly of secular, Jewish men who served in the Israeli army, while women and members of ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities are severely under-represented. Israel’s Bedouin population numbers around 200,000 and is part of Israel’s Arab minority, itself about 20% of the whole population, but just around 3.5% of the tech workforce.

A minority within a minority, Bedouin communities are among the most disadvantaged groups in the country, and suffer from a chronic lack of infrastructure like water systems, electricity grids, and roads, have inadequate access to quality education and healthcare, and often rank low on socio-economic scales among Israeli localities. Most live in the Negev area in a mix of towns and villages, some of them unrecognized by the state. A scathing State Comptroller report released last year said Bedouin communities in the south live with a shocking lack of services and governance and blamed the state, in part.

Siraj (“a source of light” in Arabic) was founded in 2017 by Israeli entrepreneurs and academics to expose Bedouin teens and youths to advanced technologies and spark their interest in fields like programming and software development. The organization has since launched Siraj Technologies, a sister company that offers solutions in the Internet of Things (IoT) space and provides job opportunities to Bedouin university graduates.

Together with MIT and Ben-Gurion University, the organizations established Digital Tent with a first training camp this past summer, which wrapped up last month. The program worked with 17 Bedouin teenagers and youths, aged 16-20, who were screened for their mathematical abilities and entrepreneurial skills. They took classes on programming languages, project management, and product management and were led by a London-based, MIT computer science graduate who is currently working at Ben-Gurion University’s urban planning laboratory.

Bedouin youths participate in the ‘Digital Tent’ tech program operated by Bedouin-led NGO Siraj in collaboration with the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and MIT. (Siraj)

Their mission, over the five-week camp, was to develop products or services that would serve their Negev communities.

Among the stand-out ventures developed by the participants and shared with The Times of Israel was a bus transportation app for school pupils that would work in recognized and unrecognized Bedouin villages (where public transport apps do not work). It was modeled after Moovit, the Israeli developer of a free app that offers public transportation schedules and transit options, and was acquired by Intel for some $900 million in 2020.

Dubbed the “Bedouin Moovit” by the program, the idea was developed by 16-year-old Furat Albador, a resident of the Bedouin town of Lakiya, who said she joined the summer camp to address a major problem in her community.

“Sometimes you wait for the [bus] ride for two minutes and sometimes an hour and a half, and it’s never possible to plan. The usual apps don’t work in our area, so it’s impossible to know when the bus will arrive. It got to the point where we call our teachers to come pick us up with their private car,” said Albador.

Her app maps school buses serving Bedouin communities based on GPS technology.

Siraj CEO Fahima Atawna told The Times of Israel that organizers were now “in the midst of our application improvement process with an ambition that [the] public transport app will run flawlessly among high school students.”

Another program participant, 18-year-old Mahmoud Abu-Ganim, also of Lakiya, developed a small device that can be attached to footwear to help warn blind and visually impaired people of obstacles in their path through vibrations.

“I think this is a development that can greatly help those in need in society. My dream is to learn and improve throughout life, to become a professional and an expert in everything I do,” said Abu-Ganim, who started learning to code at around 11 years old.

“From the 6th grade, I taught myself to program and even managed to earn money from my knowledge. I knew that this program could help me open doors for the future,” he said.

Others, like Rahat-resident Hadil Abu Ajami, 18, joined the program with minimal tech knowledge.

A Moovit-like app developed by Furat Albador, a 16-year-old Bedouin teen from Lakiya, through the ‘Digital Tent’ tech program for Bedouin youths, August 2022. (Courtesy)

“In Bedouin society, not everyone has widespread access to computers, and it is important to understand that such access can change the face of the entire community,” she said. “From a young age, I have been drawn to computers. Unfortunately, in my high school, I did not have the opportunity to major in computer science, but instead, there were physics and electronics majors.”

She said the program exposed her “to programming languages, to hardware, and to wonderful people. I realized that I have a true passion for high-tech professions.”

Another participant developed a miniature smart device that attaches to a given plant and reports on the amount of water and care it needs.

Atawna, a chemical engineer from the Bedouin town of Hura, said the organization’s mission was to “produce human models from within the community” to pave the way for others, while working with teachers, parents and community leaders to raise awareness about opportunities.”

“We see vast importance in this initiative to raise awareness in the high-tech field as technological use within the Bedouin community in the summer is practically nonexistent,” she said in an e-mail exchange.

“Sponsoring such initiatives will assist high school students who can spend their summer vacation searching for solutions as well as intertwining them in technological communities.”

Atawna said the organizers plan to hold the camp every summer “while fine-tuning it as to enrich the knowledge of the participants while maintaining the structure of the project.”

“For next year’s project, we will add content that focuses on unique skills and will add a course in English that uses professional terms relevant to the field,” she explained.

Professor Oren Yiftachel, an expert in political and legal geography, urban studies and digital citizenship at Ben-Gurion University who also oversaw the program, said the group of participating Bedouin youths “demonstrated that there is no limit to knowledge and technology.”

“The transfer of knowledge from the campus to the communities and companies operating in the Negev is one of the most important tasks of an academic institution in a developing region,” said Yiftachel.

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