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Tech We’re Using: Gaza and Google Translate: Covering the Conflict When You Don’t Speak the Language

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? David M. Halbfinger, bureau chief for The Times in Jerusalem, discussed the tech he’s using.

You travel into Gaza and the West Bank for your reporting. What tech gadgets and apps do you use on assignment in those areas?

My electronic gear is fairly simple. I carry two iPhones, each with an Apple case that doubles the phone’s battery life (I’m not that happy with these because they disintegrate after about a year, but I haven’t shopped around); a MacBook Pro; battery backups; Bluetooth headsets, keyboard and mouse; and a small bag jammed full of cables, plugs and cigarette-lighter adapters.

I sometimes also carry an Iridium satellite phone, and I always travel with a power strip in case there aren’t enough outlets where I am. I try to keep my backpack light in Gaza. Other items — armor-plated flak jacket, Kevlar helmet, gas mask and spare filters, and a trauma kit — add lots of weight to my load.

Probably the most vital tech tool I carry is the lightest: a paper clip to switch SIM cards. I’ve been here less than a year and finally got a local number from the Palestinian provider Jawwal, which has good coverage across Gaza and can be quickly replenished at countless retail shops. For months I was managing with Israeli cell service near the border and a New York number that had decent coverage in Gaza City over the Wataniya network. But now I juggle the Gaza and New York phones depending on which has the stronger signal.

What tech tools do you use to navigate the language barrier in Hebrew and Arabic?

I depend way too heavily on Google Translate, both for work and in my personal life. For accurate translations I rely on an excellent support staff, but in scanning social media I routinely turn to automated translations — far more than I’d like.

My wife and I feel like captives of Google Translate in making sense of Hebrew-language messages on local WhatsApp groups, bank statements, utility bills and so on, but it is adequate, and it continues to improve — in particular through its camera interface. As iPhone, not Android, users, we look forward to the day when WhatsApp will let us translate within the app, rather than copying and pasting into the Translate app.

In part because of the confusion of the language barrier, but also because of the complexity of the beat, I record more phone calls in this job than I have in other assignments. TapeACall Pro makes that as simple as making a three-way call, and produces a recording seconds after I hang up. I also use TurboScan to send documents from my phone, and CamCard to scan the business cards of new contacts.

What about just plain navigating?

To get around in Gaza, I work with an experienced driver, but in Israel and the West Bank I drive myself using a combination of Waze and Google Maps.

Waze is excellent in Israel, where it was invented. Almost everyone uses it, vastly enhancing the quality of real-time traffic information. But it is pretty much useless in Palestinian territory: If you plug in a location in Ramallah, it will warn you that your destination “is in a high risk area or is prohibited to Israelis by law,” and then take you to the point on the map where you cross into Palestinian-controlled territory, but no farther. Google Maps at least will navigate you all the way to your destination, but its routes often don’t account for one-way streets going the wrong way.

A bigger problem in getting around in Gaza and the West Bank is the dearth of Western-style street addresses. Many streets have no names, let alone house numbers. The most reliable way to get somewhere is to have someone at that location share the map coordinates and then get there with Google Maps, allowing extra time for wrong turns. Maps.me, a crowdsourced app that allows you to download maps and use them without cell service, also looks promising.

Waze is great at flagging radar traps, speed cameras and traffic jams, and my kids took over the voice prompts, so I hear them giving me turn-by-turn directions. What none of these apps has yet mastered, though, is the ability to pinpoint the location of the creeping student drivers who seem to clog traffic on every block of my neighborhood in Jerusalem. There needs to be an app for that.

What steps do you take to secure your communications given the often sensitive nature of your reporting?

I use WhatsApp more and more, in part because of the encryption, but also because it’s simple, it’s fast, and it makes it easy to set up ad hoc groups for specific assignments or places. I also regularly share my location on WhatsApp with a security adviser and a couple of other colleagues in case anyone needs to retrace my steps. For particularly sensitive communications, I use Signal.

How do Israelis use tech differently than people in the United States?

Americans don’t have to worry about rockets being fired from Canada or Mexico. But Israelis who live near Gaza or in the Golan Heights need to know the instant that the military detects incoming rockets; as a rule, civilians have about 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter. Several apps, including one in English — called, simply, Red Alert — instantly convey alerts about incoming fire to users based on their locations. I get alerted to all of them.

More innocuously, I’ve used parking meter apps in the United States, but none of them was as easy to use as Pango — and that’s saying something, since it only works in Hebrew and I have to translate the alerts it sends me. It bills me once a month, it doesn’t charge me when it shouldn’t, and it usually knows when I have driven away from my parking spot but forgotten to turn off the meter.

And I also can’t live without Gett, which is basically Uber but for taxis, and is also available in London, Moscow and other places. It makes it seamless to order a taxi and pay with a credit card, and receipts instantly arrive by email — a vital feature when submitting work expenses for reimbursement.

What tech do you use a lot in your personal life or that your family uses a lot at home that you don’t at work?

Israel doesn’t have Yelp, sadly, but it does have TripAdvisor, which is a decent substitute for restaurants and hotels. My family uses Moovit to get around town by city bus.

Aside from that, we don’t get a whole lot more ambitious in our family than watching shows on Netflix or iTunes. Though I’ve also started to use Johnson & Johnson’s 7 Minute Workout to get the blood pumping in a healthier way than just from the adrenaline of deadline pressure.

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