Networks, Airbnb, and the United Nations

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It’s been over a month now.


The butterflies in my stomach are making less hustle. My mind is gradually accepting the fact that I am in New York. I read all about it. I naively thought I prepared myself for everything I would face. The fast noisy life pace, the dirty streets, the crazy subways and not the most friendly people. I brought few of my books and some pieces of my past just to make sure I don’t lose my identity in the cultural melting pot. I hugged my husband as much as I could before leaving to be ready for the loneliness that will haunt me there. But no “Lonely Planet” guide can ever give you a perspective of a city more than actually being there.

I miss him already. I looked at him through the glass window of the bus that is taking me to the airport. I don’t want to leave this. We did this before, we lived in different places, different countries, different time zones and I hated it every day of it. Why am I doing this? Why am I leaving everything behind and going to the lonely unfriendly city? I tried to remember all the reasons that pushed me to take this decision.

I never dared to dream this big. Dreams became luxury at some point or depressing, and I used to be a huge dreamer. I had the I-can-do-the-impossible attitude. Then I grew up. I discovered the power in the hand of societies to crush anyone who tries to change their flock behavior, then the war with its consequences finished on whatever energy I had left to fight. I gave up on many dreams. As I said, they became luxuries. Then Ireland happened, and I thought getting a job in Ireland was THE life changing event. Then I thought getting an invitation to speak at the European Commission about challenges that face Syrians was bigger than my dreams. But this? this needs more time to process.

I laid my head back on the bus seat and closed my eyes. I tried to remember it all..  

 

NetworkX *

It all started last year.

I was attending a talk at Web Summit 2015 in Dublin, the last Web Summit to be held in Dublin. It was listed in the Society track under a title related to how technology can aid refugees. I didn’t know it did, to be honest. There were three speakers in the panel who each took turn in explaining the amazing work they have done. Startup Boat, Techfugees, and UNICEF Innovation Unit  talked about what kind of challenges they face, agreeing that the most common one was the language barrier.

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Web Summit, Dublin, 2015


I was surprised by the effort those people were putting together to save refugees, to give them better futures. And I was sitting there doing nothing. I never felt I could do anything more than donating money every now and then. After that talk, I felt I could do a lot. I waited next to the exit where the speakers were supposed to show up afterward but no one did. Except one, Christopher Fabian. I introduced myself, not sure what exactly I wanted to say or offer. I knew I wanted to say thanks in the name of all Syrians and I did. I offered my technical, research and language assistance if it could do any benefit. Surprisingly, Chris said “Yes, we could use your help” while he took his business card out of his pocket and handed it over to me. “Send me an email to this address and I will put you in touch with the team data researchers”. We shook hands, he left and I stood there staring at his business card with the blue UNICEF logo and wondering, could this really happen?

After the conference ended, Chris as promised put me in touch with the data team. Alex Rutherford & Manuel Gracia-Herranz, the friendly scientists from innovation team explained the work they do, the type of data they are after and the challenges they face. I was hooked from the first talk we had, amazed by the knowledge that can be gained from analyzing social media networks, which for me were a waste of time and an additional source to get judged and criticized for being who I am. But apparently, a lot of research can be done on these portals to give a better picture of what is going on in the world, like modeling people immigration flows based on the change of their profile location and the geotagged text they publish while moving around, or what kind of problems are raising in certain areas based on topic modeling the geotagged posted text of users in these areas. Twitter, Facebook, Post Mail, Cell phones and many other nontraditional data sources were used in research to build networks of users, drawing edges between them based on various behaviors and reasons, analyzing that, even visualizing it, in order to find out the most interesting results. And to use all that to make the world a better place? That was just the cherry on top!

Before I knew it, I was reading more and more about this topic. Social media was totally different for me now, I never look at it the same way I did before. I started volunteering with UNICEF innovation research team to investigate more around the Syrian refugee
crisis. I could not wait to finish my working hours to come back home, open my laptop and spend hours just looking at data, Syrian data, painful data.

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Screenshot from my volunteer work


But for the first time, I felt stronger, I wasn’t looking helpless, as usually, at the disaster images and the death posts. I felt I could actually do something with it. This went on for few months until one day I was updating Alex about new results I found. He listened quietly to me, then he said the last thing I expected: “We have a new job post for a data scientist in our office in NY. What do you think of applying? “

 

 

A, Adelle, Airbnb

image05I woke up early with the sunrise. My biological hour was still used to Greenwich time zone. I didn’t mind opening my eyes to see a beautiful scenery of the sun rising over New York’s east river. I got out of bed and went to the kitchen to prepare my coffee. Adelle, the nice old lady I am sharing the house with,  is sleeping, which is good as I don’t do mornings with people. I have to mentally wake up alone before talking to others. I never shared a house before with anyone other than my family, and I hated it ( the sharing, not my family). 

I am not a people person. I appreciate my solitude. So it was kind of a challenge to look for a place on Airbnb that suits my weird condition, close to work, in the range of my budget, and with someone ‘normal’. I wanted my own space but I had to share due to New York extreme rents. It was my first time using Airbnb. I still don’t get how people could easily share their place with a stranger, but I guess I am lucky that I met a kind one. Adelle, my new roommate, from The Philippines who lived her whole life in the US, acted as my Mom the whole time I was there. It was remarkable how all mothers, the worrying creatures, no matter where they come from, share same instincts and behaviors. She was constantly checking on me to see if I needed anything. I didn’t mind all that as I was feeling a bit tensed from the whole experience, so it was good to have someone to take care of few things for me in this new adventure.

So, this is New York, with its skyscrapers and noisy roads, it was still early in the morning but streets were already jammed with traffic. While the view from the 8th floor was so fascinating, Fairouz’s voice, my morning ritual, was not working out with the big picture. It sounded more like a voice over. I still try to listen to her in every country I visit but apparently it only works in the Levant. Maybe only in Syria, precisely Damascus.

It is been a long time since I have been on a high floor, the average height for buildings in Galway was 2 floors up. That made me remember the phenomenon that spread in Damascus during the first year of the war. While the government was busy quelling the revolution, damascenes were busy trying to build another flat on their rooftops, illegally (without a permission), and as quickly as possible before the government would notice and tear it down. That was due to the fact that Damascus was overpopulated and had extremely high rents. When people met on any occasion, they would joke how Damascus rose an extra one story above sea level during one night. I guess no one assumed those extra flats would be the first thing to be destroyed by random air missiles in the next years, and that people would sell those flats and pay everything they have to afford to reach a safe haven or simply drown trying to.

It is so scary how these thoughts creep silently to my mind without prior notice. I pulled myself back to reality and took my eyes off the window leaving my thoughts to drown in the East River. I can’t carry them with me on my first day at my new job.

Focus. It is time now.

Welcome to Madness

It was time to face my new realm. I got dressed up, packed my things and left the place quietly. It was hot and humid outside. It took me only 5 steps to start sweating. The mix of the heavy laptop backpack I was carrying plus the arousing anxiety and of course NY’s weather in July all seemed to increase that.

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UNICEF HQ, New York, 2016


I arrived to work already exhausted and dehydrated. I was welcomed by a nice security guy who told me what to do and how to call my unit’s extension. I sat down on a couch and waited for someone to pick me up. It was Alex, the friendly face from Skype. We finally met in person, in NY, at the UNICEF Headquarters. And I don’t get time to absorb all that because things are still to get more real.

We took the elevator to the 6th floor, where all the magic happens, where all our virtual discussions, job interviews, paper work took place and where the innovators shared a space smaller than their ideas. I met Manuel, who took us around for a tour that stopped at the cafe on the ground floor. He talked about UNICEF innovation unit, explained the ongoing projects and showcased few examples from previous work. Between modeling Zika Virus and mobility patterns to help to manage its spread, creating collaborations with data giants, analyzing satellite images, I was trying so hard to keep my inner voice calm while listening to all the interesting humanitarian lines of work they have started already.

I wanted to work on all of that, right now, and never leave this place until all tasks are done, the world is safe from viruses, the war has ended, and the refugees are back home! I was THAT excited. I never felt in the right place as much as that moment.

 

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Welcome to Madness, Day 1


Later on, I was directed to my office, where on top of it laid a brochure titled “Welcome to Madness”. I wasn’t sure why would a unit in a serious organization use this expression but later on that day I realized that this is not like anywhere else. This nest of nerds who truly love their jobs believe in making the world a better place by creating innovative open source technologies each in their own special way and harmoniously together. No suits. No long meetings. No bureaucracy. And because crazy ideas are more than welcome there and because this team screams diversity, this formula equals to only one thing, innovation, or in other words, madness!

It was also interesting (and refreshing), to see more females than males at that office. I definitely have not worked along with that many successful and inspiring women before. I am used to be surrounded by men at work; colleagues, leads and project managers. Everything at work was shaped based on their ideas and their point of view, and it was always challenging to have a heard voice among them. It is for sure promising to be surrounded by other females, leads in particular who are involved in the decision-making process.

 

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Source: unicefstories.org


By the end of the day, I met almost everyone in this unique team who made NY less lonely over the next weeks. They all tried to make me feel at home in their own way either by designing a welcome post with my name on it, giving me NY survival tips, inviting me to lunch or coffee, planning a weekend with me, introducing me to some of their family members, supporting my first NY Subway ride, or simply by just answering my newbie questions with a big smile.

I remember not wanting this day to end. But it was followed by a lot of more exciting days in that busy corner on the 6th floor bursting with creativity and madness, of which I am proud to be part of.

 

I ❤ NY

 

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New York, 2016


A wise woman assured me on a rooftop gathering in NY that the world is going to be better. The ugly things going on right now will reach an end point eventually. I didn’t see that coming anytime soon, although I wanted to believe that. I took this job because I wanted to be an active member of a group who makes the world better, but I still have my doubts about the human race. “It will get better dear, you know why? because they did all that before but we didn’t hear about it. Now it is all in the open, and we get to do something about it”.

I have to believe this. That’s why I am outside my comfort zone in the immigrant’s country, adding a new city to my immigration path. I have to admit it, NY was better than my expectations, or if I can borrow some words I read in a souvenir shop “NY didn’t suck that much”. It still won’t win over Galway’s friendliest people (which luckily I will still be coming back to every now and then), but I don’t remember there was a dull moment for me there. Every time I walked down its streets I would stumble upon something new and amusing. Parks and libraries were two things that I didn’t expect to see frequently. Discovering The Strand was finding heaven, visiting MOMA and checking the immigration exhibition was a bittersweet moment, trying a new cuisine every day was fun, riding the Subways was a challenge accepted and my favorite street by far is the library walk.

I know I only discovered 1% of New York, but for now, it is just a good place to start saving the world from.

 

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The library walk, New York

 

 

* Networkx: a Python library for studying graphs and networks https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NetworkX
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4 responses »

  1. Wow really, a big WOW. that’s amazing Suad, a beautiful journey. I’m glad to hear that, finally, you are doing what you really love, and doing things that really matter.
    As you know I already worked with UNICEF as ICT assistant, and when I was there, I lost faith in all United Nations, because I have seen enough corruption, until this day, UNICEF in Syria is not doing its business.
    But now I read about the HQ, and I am amazed, how much these people are excited and passionate to provide help, not to their home country, but to the whole world!
    I also don’t expect the world to get better soon, but with such people, I really started to believe your colleague talk, the world WILL get better, soon 🙂
    Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Like

  2. Pingback: Networks, Airbnb, and the United Nations – Stories of UNICEF Innovation

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