By Pippa Yeats
The first of March marked my 10 year anniversary working in technology for development. But this was not the reason these past few days have been the most significant of my career. The significance started on Thursday 24th February, the day Ukraine was invaded by Russian forces.
Over the past 3 years building Turn.io, we’ve worked with four incredible Ukrainian developers, one of which still works with us out of Cherkasy, in the middle of Ukraine. Luckily, they are all still safe. They all joined us in 2020 when we needed to quickly increase our capacity to support the WHO to respond to a different crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic. I never fathomed they could become the target audience of one of our Chat for Impact services.
It was just the evening before (Wednesday 23 February) that we’d been talking with the Meta Civic Engagement team about further preparing our crisis response Playbook so we could improve on the way we support social impact organisations during a crisis. As the only Social Impact WhatsApp Business Solution provider, we had learnt a lot when we supported the WHO to get a chat service live in early March 2020, which reached 12 million with accurate information on COVID-19 in the first week. We’d learnt, even more, supporting Care International to get a chat support service up during the Afghanistan crisis in September 2021. Both times our team got involved in the initial quick setup and launch of a WhatsApp chat service before handing it over to the teams who would manage and expand these services long-term (WHO with Praekelt.org, and the Care International teams respectively). So when Russia invaded Ukraine the next morning we were shocked but ready to do what we could to help.
On Friday (25 February 2022), the Meta Civic Engagement team asked us to jump on a call with Ukrainian government officials to determine how we could support them to deliver critical information to citizens over WhatsApp. That first call was cancelled at the last minute as bomb sirens went off in Kyiv.
While waiting for the call to be rescheduled the team got ready to sprint. We prepared to spin up a private cloud installation of our software and prepared for heightened levels of security. We started prototyping to explore what a useful service could look like. After scouring reputable news sources for updates of what was happening on the ground we were devastated but motivated. We had started to get an idea of what the most useful content was likely to be: Shelters, News, Emergencies and Safety information.
However, the weight of the simultaneous cyber-war sunk in the moment I tried to access Ukrainian government websites and found them all down. The only official sources of information from the Ukrainian government I could find easily online were on Facebook and Twitter. The need for an end-to-end encrypted messaging service to deliver critical information felt essential.
On Saturday afternoon (26 February 2022) we had our first call with the ДСНС України.
“ДСНС України, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU) is a central body of executive power with activities directed and coordinated by the Cabinet of Ministers through the Minister of internal affairs. It implements state policies in the domain of civil protection, protection of population and territories from emergencies, prevention of emergencies, rectification of emergency consequences, rescue work, fire extinguishing, fire and technogenic safety, accident rescue service activities and hydrometeorological activities.” Source: https://knowledge.unccd.int/kss/state-emergency-service-ukraine
With the help of a Ukrainian translator, we showed them the prototype and got the go-ahead to get started setting up the WhatsApp service. By end of day Sunday we had a secure, private cloud installation of Turn.io and the WhatsApp Business API set up, and a minimum viable service ready for review by the ДСНС України. We iterated on the menu and content with direction from ДСНС України, and continued to expand the information available as new resources were shared with us. Having local knowledge in our team was invaluable and our Ukrainian teammate admitted “I never imagined I’d be a translator.” He has been much much more.
At 7 pm on 1 March 2022, the service was launched by ДСНС України. They requested mobile network operators in Ukraine to send an SMS to all citizens with a link to the WhatsApp chat service. We saw 200,000 users access the service that day. And then the real work started.
Every morning since 27 February we have a call with colleagues from Meta and ДСНС України to discuss iterations to the chat service, new content and marketing. But it was not until the 3 March, that we first got to see the friendly face of one of our ДСНС України colleagues. It was a moment I’ll never forget: He was smiling with kind eyes and in his ДСНС України rescue uniform. I broke into tears as soon as we ended the call.
In fact, I cried many times during that first week. In order to build a useful service I needed to understand the details of the information being released, the information people needed and how to structure it all to make it easy to navigate. Loading the emergency updates and witnessing the devastating impact of Russian weapons on Ukraine and her people was the most difficult for me. But loading instructions of what to do under fire, when exposed to a chemical weapon or what to prepare for an evacuation also left a lump in my throat. In fact, my team (rightly) made me take a step back from loading the emergency updates. But knowing that I had the luxury of taking a step back, just highlighted what a luxury it is to be safe and to have access to the support I needed in that moment. Millions of Ukrainians don’t have that luxury, and furthermore, billions globally can’t take a break from their challenging lives. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that everyone has access to the support they need.
But not all my tears in March have been from shock and devastation. There have also been plenty that have emanated from sheer pride. I feel incredibly privileged to get to do this work and to do it alongside a team of unwavering, highly skilled and passionate human beings. I have been impressed yet again by how our team just jumped right in to help. Everyone shifts into crisis response mode, assumes their roles and does a coordinated sprint. I am so thankful to each one of them, for the past few days, the past few years and for joining Simon, Gustav and I in this journey to use Chat for Impact.
I also want to thank the Civic Engagement Team at Meta for supporting our vision and giving us the opportunities to prove that we can have a social impact with chat.
But most of all I feel incredibly grateful to the ДСНС України. Thank you for showing the world what it looks like to deliver impactful emergency services and effective communication to your citizens under incredible stress. “Зберігайте спокій ми поруч” ДСНС України (Keep calm we are close). It is an honour to support you.
This is why we built Turn.io: to support the incredible life-saving work that governments, nonprofits and UN agencies do on a daily basis. We want to eliminate the technical burden of delivering effective chat services at scale so that we can help make it possible for social impact teams to deliver efficient, personalised support services to populations in need. We believe that the social impact teams working every day to save lives deserve the world’s best technology products. Not just good enough software, the best products built by the world’s best talent. We’re motivated to make that happen.
Since launching the ДСНС України WhatsApp service we’ve added first aid content, mental health content, humanitarian support details and even the weather (there are freezing temperatures across most of Ukraine). The service will continue to evolve as the crisis evolves: from a safety and security crisis to a humanitarian crisis to a health and food security crisis. And we’ll be here to support each step of the way. This Friday morning’s call ended with our ДСНС України colleagues saying: “We also hope to see you on Monday.” A sobering reminder of the hope, strength and resolve of the Ukrainian people and the danger they find themselves in.
I don’t know what the next 10 years will bring. But what I do know is that I’ll still be trying to increase access to support for people in need.