WOleg Polovynko often thinks about the Russian invasion. He looks down at the fitness watch. In normal times, the 38-year-old IT director in Kyiv’s city council used his Garmin watch to track his workouts. “Right now, my heart rate is 62,” he tells TIME, holding up his wrist. “In the first five days after Feb. 24, it was never below 90.”
For the past five weeks, Polovynko and his boss, Kyiv’s deputy mayor and chief digital transformation officer Petro Olenych, have led an exhaustive effort to adapt and repurpose everyday technology for a city that has found itself facing a 20th-century-style war. They are responsible for the fact that the majority of residents in the Ukrainian capital have the ability to connect to the Internet underground bomb shelters, locate open pharmacies, and sleep well knowing that their phones will notify them of any incoming attacks before they sound the sirens.
While President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian digital officials have been lauded for their success in galvanizing global support on social media and fending off the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns, local officials like Olenych and Polovynko have focused on the practical.
“Every day, we wake up and we’re thinking how we can keep people in the city alive and safe,” says Olenych. Popular Kyiv Digital’s smartphone app gives residents a map showing the nearest bomb shelters. It also allows them to obtain critical supplies, such as insulin, fuel, or food. Instead of being notified about the closing of local metro stops for repairs, they now warn of approaching air raids.
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Even the app’s logo reflects this shift. What was once a friendly sky-blue “K” for Kyiv has been redesigned into a black-and-gray military camo pattern. TIME spoke to Olenych, Polovynko via video from an unknown location within the city. They wore patches with the logo taped on to olive-green T-shirts.
It’s hard to grasp that just two months ago, the main problem their city council faced was complaints about traffic jams downtown. The IT staff at the municipal government now have guns and leave work only to get a shower or a couple of hours sleep. (Olenych says he’s been sleeping at Polovynko’s house since a bomb landed near his own home.) On the day they spoke to TIME, employees of the city council’s digital office were poring over mobile data to determine how to best ration food for those that remain.
“I felt like I was part of a modern world, where all of these [technologies] were part of our everyday life, and now suddenly we need to use them for such basic purposes, for life or death,” says Polovynko. “I never imagined that I would develop software in 2022 to help people stay alive, to survive things like a missile attack. We can, of course. And now we’re using all of our IT minds in Ukraine to help our people and our soldiers.”
24 February as the invasion began and air raid sirens blared over the city for the first time since World War II, employees of Kyiv’s digital transformation office held a meeting to decide what to do. The employees quickly decided that they wouldn’t evacuate. Some mothers of children with young kids left the country to join their husbands in western Ukraine. The rest would remain.
Over the next few days, Polovynko’s team spent much of its time trying to restore their systems from backups after a wave of cyberattacks knocked out their online services. “After that, we became like a big startup, where you always receive a lot of tasks and you only go to sleep when you are finished,” Polovynko said about his IT team of roughly 20 employees. “Then you wake up and go back to work.”
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The next step was to add functionality to the city’s smartphone app so that it could warn residents about incoming missile attacks. Since Jan. 20,21 the Kyiv Digital app had had over a million subscribers to receive emergency notifications about everything, from closures of transit to COVID-19 case. This feature was now being turned into an emergency-warning system that could save lives.
According to officials from the city, in recent days there were 6-10 air raid alarms sent by the app each day. A red alarm icon shows the time and the message “Air Warning! Head to the nearest shelter!” It’s followed by a green icon telling residents when the danger had passed, according to screenshots shared with TIME.
The app saved the life of Vira Gryaznova, a 49 year old woman who works as a non-profit worker and lives in Kyiv. Gryaznova doesn’t have a television and finds it hard to hear the physical sirens from her home. “I was not a user of the Kyiv Digital app before the war,” she says. “But I use it now to get information about air raid alerts.”
The first week was chaotic. There were long lines of people trying to get basic items, and thousands tried to flee. So Kyiv’s digital office quickly set up online forms that allowed business owners to report if they were able to open. These details were then added to an app map showing where gas stations, pharmacies and grocery shops still stock supplies.. “Our team has readjusted to deliver new valuable services on an everyday basis,” says Victoria Itskovich, who serves as the city’s deputy IT director. “The main thing I’ve learned during this time is that there is no point in striving for the perfect solution. The best product is the one you can launch here and now.”
Connectivity became a major problem as residents fled underground shelters and Internet service providers were frequently shut down. “We realized we would have to spend a lot of time in these bomb shelters and there was nothing prepared for the long term,” Polovynko says.
Olenych, the deputy mayor, reached out to Kyiv’s Internet providers and organized them into a group on a messaging app. Then his office added a feature to the city’s app that allowed residents to request Internet access for their bomb shelters. Over 1,000 bomb shelters in the city had done so. Officials estimated that around 800 people had been connected to the internet as of Thursday.
City officials took mobile WiFi hotspots from empty offices in Kyiv’s government buildings to use in bomb shelters. They also got a boost from SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who donated Starlink satellite terminals to provide Internet access after a request from Ukraine’s national digital office. In a March 4 photo shared with TIME, Olenych and Polovynko posed with one of Musk’s satellite dishes, flashing a thumbs-up sign.
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They have also received the support of other Western businesses. Cloudflare is a cybersecurity company based in San Francisco. It offered its free services to the Kyiv City Council. This allowed them to protect themselves from cyberattacks and recover. “Cloudflare is appalled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” spokesperson Laurel Toney told TIME. “Since the run up to the invasion, Cloudflare has worked to protect Ukrainian websites and networks [and] helped Ukrainian government websites come back online while under active cyberattack.”
Kyiv’s digital office has also been working with Ukrainian mobile operators to arrange free roaming coverage for residents, no matter which provider they use. They have been working with mobile operators in Kyiv on more serious matters. They are using the analytics from Kyiv’s mobile users to estimate how many people live in the city to preserve food rations.
“We really were like Alice in Wonderland—we lived in another world, which was peaceful, friendly, and open,” Polovynko says of his work in Kyiv’s digital office before the war. “Now we’re in a new IT age, where we need to put all of our technology minds towards military goals.”
The city’s digital office has divided residents into two groups: those who are staying to fight, and those who are staying because they are old, sick, or have no way to escape. Both are relying on their digital services to keep them safe—and prepared for what may come next.
“Our main focus is to use any options that can help us save lives, to use the technology to first of all to protect our people – and to kill another people,” says Polovynko. “It’s sad, but unfortunately this is the situation we’re now in. It is impossible to lose. Ukrainians will never, never give up, and you feel it when you’re here in Kyiv, we will really fight to the end.”
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