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Fixing Aid | Do tech-based tools help or hinder the Ukrainian aid response?

‘There are various websites, but unfortunately in big cities like Warsaw, where many refugees arrive, it’s hard to find a job.’

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In this episode of Fixing Aid, host Alae Ismail explores the role of the tech sector in emergency aid efforts and, more specifically, whether there’s a better way to organise the many different tech-based tools that seek to help Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland. 

Over 2.5 million Ukrainians escaped to Poland following the Russian invasion. Countless individuals and companies there have created tech tools to help people find accommodation or transport, offer information, or support the local groups trying to offer aid. 

When someone arrives in a new country, where they don’t speak the language, there’s a lot of confusion around what to do and where to go. Tech-based organisations saw that they could use their existing technologies to help make things easier – everything from getting information on how to access healthcare to support in finding a job. 

“There are various websites where you can look for jobs, but unfortunately in big cities like Przemyśl, Warszaw, Rzeszów, where many refugees arrived, so far it’s hard to find a job,” Zanna, who recently arrived in Warsaw from Ukraine, tells Ismail. 

One tech CEO, who is hosting a refugee family, realised that the voice bot technology his company produces could help refugees get information more easily and quickly and take some of the pressure off the organisations trying to provide it. 

Tech initiatives in Poland focused not only on the refugees themselves but on the organisations trying to meet their needs. As Ismail discovers, many NGOs simply need to be more digitally up to date in their operations, and she speaks to an organisation that matches aid groups with pro bono tech support from IT and software development companies. But before support can be provided, Ismail finds, NGOs often need support just to understand their digital needs and how tech can help their operations run more efficiently.

Guests: Michal Czekalski, CEO of Dialo; Zuzanna Gutkowska, NGO relations manager at Tech to the Rescue; Joanna Kucharczyk of Polish Humanitarian Action. 

Do you know of innovations in the aid sector that are genuinely improving the lives of people in the midst of humanitarian crises? Or of some that have really missed the mark? Let us know: [email protected]. We’re interested in everything, from tech and AI, to environmental projects, to supply chain delivery. Tell us!

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Transcript | Do tech-based tools help or hinder the Ukrainian aid response?

Alae Ismail:

Hey listeners, welcome to Fixing Aid!

I’m Alae Ismail, and in this podcast series by The New Humanitarian, we look at innovations meant to improve the lives of people in humanitarian crises – from those fleeing conflict to communities facing flooding, prolonged drought, and hunger.

Today, we look at how to better meet the needs of the millions of Ukrainians who have fled their country in the midst of the Russian invasion. And whether all the tech-based tools that have popped up – from websites that match people who need a place to stay with people who have one to offer, to voice bots that help answer jammed information lines – are helping or hindering the aid effort. 

Newclips, Feb. 2022 to March 2022:

‘It's just been a non-stop flow of people at this border crossing, the Medyka border crossing in Poland, We’re seeing women and children arriving.’

‘Thousands have been arriving at a Poland train station, seeking safety from Russia’s invasion, trying to stay warm in the freezing cold temperatures.’

‘The exodus of refugees coming in is non-stop. An emotional reunion as people in Poland welcome Ukrainian relatives that are now war refugees.’

‘At the central station, a sea of people, some just of trains from Ukraine, hungry, thirsty and tired.’

Ismail:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has so far led to 4.5 million Ukrainians leaving everything behind to seek safety abroad. More than 2.5 million of them arrived in neighbouring Poland. 

Many needed information, as anyone would: How to find accommodation, where to access basic services like healthcare, how to apply for jobs, where to sign up for language courses so you can get a job.

Zanna is from Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine. Much of her hometown was destroyed in the first few weeks after the war started:

Zanna:

When they started to throw bombs, we went to the metro, spent six days there and then went through the tunnels towards the train station. We got on the Kharkiv-Lviv train, lights were turned off, we were not allowed to switch on phones, and the windows were covered with curtains. The train moved very slowly. The entire time we saw that the sky was covered with flying missiles. 

Ismail:

Zanna and her two children left for Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine that’s about 70 kilometres from the Polish border. Speaking a bit of Polish herself, Zanna hoped settling in Poland would be a little bit easier than elsewhere: 

Zanna:

After entering Poland, my biggest concern was finding a place to live. I knew that there are families which accept refugees in their houses. Fortunately we met such a family and are now living in their apartment. I know that there are many Ukrainians living with such families as well.

Ismail:

Zanna says she and her two children feel safer in the Polish capital, Warsaw, than they felt in Ukraine. But even though she has a basic understanding of the Polish language, she still struggles daily to understand where to find the things she needs for her family. She wants to make sure her children continue their education. And she is eager to start working again:

Zanna:

Now my biggest concern is getting a job. I know that now it’s hard to find a job in Poland because so many refugees came. There are various websites where you can look for jobs but unfortunately in big cities like Przemysl, Warszaw, Rzeszów, where many refugees arrived, so far it’s hard to find a job.

Ismail: 

European nations are granting Ukrainians residency and work permits much more quickly compared to refugees fleeing other conflicts. Ukrainaians can officially live and work in Poland. Free healthcare is available, and free public transportation, and children can enrol in Polish schools. But people still need to know how to get these things. 

Newclips, Feb. 2022 to March 2022:

‘This is volunteerism at its absolute best.’

‘From the moment we got to Poland, we’ve seen people not just opening their hearts to Ukrainian refugees, but their homes.’

‘Michael and Katarina drove for five hours from Warsaw to offer people somewhere to stay.’

Ismail:

Zanna found housing with Michal Czekalski and his family. Michal says he felt a responsibility to help Ukrainians looking for safety in Poland. He decided to open up his family home. 

With Zanna as a guest, Michal saw up close the many challenges refugee families face. Something he never realised before Zanna came to stay:

Michal Czekalski:

It’s figuring out where to live. It’s figuring out how to apply for a job, how to apply for social security, and how to get your kids [into] schools because these are all mothers with their kids. So [there’s a] huge amount of work, of research, that these people have to get by themselves. Because they are very much physically distributed across private apartments that they are hosted in or they rent.

Ismail:

As CEO of a Poland-based IT company, Dialo, Michal works with companies to improve their customer care. He realised that not only could he help refugees by hosting a family, his company could contribute on a much different, and potentially bigger scale. Not by creating new technology, but by adjusting existing technology to make it useful to the aid sector.

Dialo creates voice bots. You know, those automated voices you hear when calling a company’s helpline. Before you get to speak to a customer service agent, you go through a menu to make sure you end up in the right department. 

Zanna and other refugees faced an information gap, Michal realised. Voice bots could answer calls from the millions of Ukrainians in need of information. Some organisations, Michal says, have started removing their phone numbers from their websites because they can’t deal with the crush of calls. 

Czekalski:

So first we’ve made the research about the call centre operations in helplines that are supporting refugees. And it turns out that the numbers, the helplines, are so distributed, there’s a kind of chaos, that people don't know who to call for certain questions. And call centre agents in those helplines, they end up transferring forty percent of requests to other helplines. And we thought that it's a great opportunity for technology to step in, and actually build the kind of umbrella solution which could integrate all of those actors into one system and help route the communication between these actors. So that the whole communication is much more efficient. And you do that by implementing a very simple piece of technology, which is a robot which asks a question, in the beginning of every call in those helplines, which is: “Hey, what’s your problem? How can we help you?”

Ismail:

After the robot understands the caller’s request, it can guide the caller to the next step: either by sharing contact details of an institution or organisation that might be able to help, or directly transferring your call to them. And, because not everyone has a basic understanding of Polish, like Zanna, the voice bots can understand Ukrainian:

Audio:

[Voice bot in Ukrainian]

Ismail:

The power of this type of technology is not just that it can support hundreds of volunteers currently working to deliver aid. Voice bots learn along the way, meaning that the more calls are made, the more data is collected, the more precise and hopefully valuable the service becomes. 

Czekalski:

The true potential of scalability of the technology would be being able to address the most frequent questions with [a] robotic answer, with robotic dialogue. And this is exactly what voice bots have been used for by our financial services clients. So the technology is ready, and we're implementing that right now, as of this week, with both NGO helplines and government helplines. We'll be gathering data for probably around two weeks, and after that we’ll be able to start routing calls.

Ismail:

Michal never worked with NGOs or organisations from the aid sector before. When the idea came to him, he just reached out to 20 NGOs working with Ukrainian refugees to see if they were interested. 

There are many tech initiatives in Poland and other European countries created by companies and individuals who wanted to do something to help people fleeing the war in Ukraine. 

But the aid world and the tech world are not that well connected. 

Trying to bridge this gap is Tech to the Rescue, a Poland-based platform that matches non-profits facing technological challenges with IT companies that offer pro-bono support. They realised that connecting the right IT company to the NGO that can best use its services isn’t always easy, as the two sectors don’t interact that much. 

In the runup to the war, Tech to the Rescue started engaging with Ukrainian NGOs. This was months before the actual invasion. 

Zuzanna Gutkowska, the NGO relations manager at Tech to the Rescue, says they then launched the campaign “Tech for Ukraine” to put together a list of IT companies.

Zuzanna Gutkowska: 

We found out that very often, nonprofits from Ukraine cannot fund new technologies from the governmental grants that they get. So that means that if they want to buy some technology, to build some technology, they need to find private donors to do that. And that’s not easy, of course. So because of that, they are really behind [in] digital transformation. 

Ismail:

That difficulty in finding money to pay for tech development meant that Ukrainian NGOs struggled to move their operations into the digital space, even in a very basic way, long before the war began. Tech to the Rescue noticed that the aid groups’ needs are not cutting-edge, high-end or revolutionary – they are actually quite basic.

Gutkowska:

They are lacking websites, they’re lacking mobile apps, they’re lacking this kind of database management systems that they can use for managing donors, managing humanitarian aid, managing volunteers. And now when facing the conflict, when facing the war with Russia, they were also lacking cybersecurity when it comes to their systems.

Ismail: 

By the time Ukrainian NGOs started reaching out to Tech to the Rescue, their cities were already being bombed. Making every request urgent.

Requests from Ukrainian NGOs at first focused on safety and cybersecurity, as well as how to establish online payments and cryptocurrency funding, as the war began complicating bank transfers between countries.

In Poland, requests from NGOs focused on creating platforms to help refugees find a place to live or websites to create jobs or organise transportation. Other projects include a learning platform where Ukrainian children can continue their education, and a telemedicine platform that allows refugees to consult with a doctor. 

Over 120 tech companies signed up, ranging from small, national ones to big international names like Amazon and Salesforce. To match an NGO with a tech company, Tech to the Rescue looks at the tech request but also at the amount of time the company is willing to donate and their availability.

But while NGOS and the tech companies share one end goal, to create better access to humanitarian aid for refugees from Ukraine, tech companies and NGOs don’t always understand each other immediately, Zuzanna says:

Gutkowska:

Non-profits do not have a lot of experience in technological projects. So when they are starting to talk with IT companies, they are not sure what they should ask about, what to pay attention to. They do not see the full picture. So of course there is always also a question of intellectual property to the project. This is one of the things that both parties have to decide on. Sometimes, you know, an IT company is willing to develop a big toolset, a big software for free, but they want to keep the intellectual property rights to the project so that in the future they can use it for another project that they will have, commercial or not commercial.

Ismail:

But sometimes it's also important for the NGO to keep the intellectual property rights to the projects they thought of and used outside help to develop. Zuzanna says most often, intellectual property rights are made open source. This means that everybody can make use of the software, including other NGOs – offering more benefits to the wider aid sector. 

One Polish organisation that received tech support through Tech to the Rescue is Polish Humanitarian Action, one of the largest humanitarian organisations in Eastern and Central Europe. Before the invasion, they were already providing aid in Eastern Ukraine, delivering food to children and elderly people, among other things. 

As Ukrainians began fleeing to Poland, Joanna Kucharczyk of Polish Humanitarian Action says it became really urgent for national organisations to work together: 

Joanna Kucharczyk:

We have seen in the very first days of invasion an influx of refugees. Dozens, if not hundreds, of websites and IT solutions that were aiming to help connecting people, exchanging information, gathering information, etc. So, these tech solutions came at the very first moment because everyone wanted to be engaged and people who have their talents in IT, also they wanted to do good. 

Ismail:

But now, Joanna says, only a few of the tech services started in those early days are still active. They disappeared either because they didn’t attract enough traction, were deemed unsafe, or maybe just didn’t work well for its designed purpose. 

Joanna’s team worked on a platform to help newly arrived refugees find a place to stay – a sort of AirBnb model. And there were also projects with other NGOs.

But as the war goes on, priorities are shifting from short-term to longer-term needs:

Kucharczyk:

Most of the organisations, especially those that were working with migrants before, were not very big, they had limited teams. So the first thing that we observed is not lack of money, but its lack of human resources, lack of people to work. And of course, there were a lot of volunteers coming and willing to help but that voluntary work is not sustainable. And we have to look at sustainable solutions for those organisations. So we were searching how to help with building this capacity. And the second need is, of course, coordination and exchange of information.

Ismail:

Looking for a tool to create better and more effective information management between NGOs, Joanna’s organisation reached out to Tech to the Rescue. The accommodation platform she and her group had worked on focused directly on people in need. Now, Joanna turned her attention to the aid organisations and their needs.

Kucharczyk:

The context we’re dealing with here in Poland is absolutely needing the multi-stakeholder coordination and cooperation, not only between NGOs, but also the government, the local authorities, and the business. We know that this crisis will not end, and we will deal with various challenges across the next years. We wanted a tool that will be useful for organisations to manage themselves. And this platform is actually a map with information about organisations that are working in different parts of Poland. 

Ismail:

Polish Humanitarian Action’s platform is developed by Netguru, an international software development company based in Poland. Twenty of its employees are working on this platform, part-time. The project is set to continue for another three months. The exact cost, if Polish Humanitarian Action had to pay is unclear, but Tech to the Rescue thinks the bill could run up to tens of thousands of euros. 

Kucharczyk:

They’re giving us the resources that we could not imagine having in other circumstances, I have absolutely no idea how much it costs. If I had to pay for it, I would not be able to develop this kind of product without their voluntary work.

Ismail:

The platform is still under development, but parts of it are already working. Joanna says it’s a big step up from the Google Docs and free online-based software that aid groups shared with each other to try to limit unnecessary overlap in providing aid to Ukrainians newly arrived in Poland. 

Tech to the Rescue started out during the COVID pandemic, to support the health sector. Their small team of seven can no longer cope with all the requests from NGOs helping Ukrainian refugees. They just received a half million euro grant from the charitable arm of Google, which allows them to expand their team and indirectly help more people from Ukraine. And with that, Zuzanna hopes the interaction between tech companies and the aid sector can be completely transformed: 

Gutkowska:

Our long term goal is to establish this kind of pro bono projects as an industry standard among IT companies, as it is now with law firms, for example, right? When you go to a big international law firm, it’s a standard for them to engage in pro bono work for different charities and foundations or even individual people. And we want IT companies to look at these kind of partnerships in [a] similar way.

Ismail:

Michal from Dialo says that if the voice bot project was developed for a private company, it would have cost tens of thousands of euros. Instead, Michal’s staff is coding voluntarily. But he started raising money from private sponsors to keep up with the project as it grows. 

For Michal, who has never worked with the aid sector, the problem faced by the humanitarian sector seems much bigger than the clogged flow of information he became aware of while living with his temporary houseguest, Ukrainian refugee Zanna. The reality, he says, is that the entire system lacks resources: 

Czekalski:

The real challenge is how to scale the capabilities of the whole system. In our case, it's the global system of providing information for refugees. We know the capabilities of the technology, but it’s about all the actors working together. And it’s about funding that. Because building services, which will actually help refugees and answer their questions rather than human agents, it will cost and at this point, I’m not sure whether we'll be able to raise funds for this goal. 

Audio:

[Voice bot in Ukrainian]

Ismail:

Dialo and Tech to the Rescue are just some of the many companies that didn’t design new technology, but pivoted their already functioning technologies to support Ukrainian refugees. 

Because Ukrainian organisations have trouble getting grants to support tech development, many were exposed and unprepared after the Russians invaded. They turned to tech volunteers for help. Voice bots that understand the Ukrainian language could eventually make things for people like Zanna, who you heard from earlier, easier while they learn to find their footing in Poland. 

But it does make me wonder, should humanitarians rely on the good will of tech companies to provide better aid to millions of refugees – not just in Poland, but across the world? 

Especially as the aid doesn’t seem to be all that new: How revolutionary or innovative is it to improve an aid organisation’s cyber security, or to develop an online platform to map which organisation provides what type of aid? 

Conflicts may start suddenly, but couldn’t the tech solutions offered by the software and other tech companies have been requested and developed much earlier? 

That’s it for this week’s episode of The New Humanitarian’s podcast series: Fixing Aid. 

We have more episodes coming up, and in all of them, we’ll start with asking people who are in need of aid or who receive aid, what they need to improve their lives. And then we’ll look at how to help solve those issues by talking to the innovators who are trying out new ideas and solutions. 

Send us your feedback. Find us on Instagram or Twitter: @NewHumanitarian, or send us an email: [email protected]

Don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review. 

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. 

This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf. 

And I’m Alae Ismail. See you next time!

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