This week marks a year since Russia began its devastating invasion of Ukraine, and throughout that time, technology has shaped the conflict, from satellites beaming internet service from space to the mobile phones in people’s pockets.
Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino recently spoke to Roman Osadchuk, a research associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who is also based in Ukraine, about how mobile apps have become an essential lifeline there as citizens navigate the daily realities of war.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Roman Osadchuk: So if we take a look into some things like air raid alerts, so we have a plenty of apps that would actually notify you when this is happening. Or some old apps that were just for some local city news, they help people who lost all of their belongings, including their documents. People could also apply for the help from the government if they lost some property, or they lost their job because of war, they could do that through the apps.
Meghan McCarty Carino: Yeah, I was looking at the list of the most commonly downloaded apps, and I saw a number of them were sort of these dedicated air raid alert apps. How do those work?
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Osadchuk: So they basically monitor what local authorities say and when the local authorities launch those sirens, because there is a physical signal on the city street, so when you’re outside, you hear them. But those apps, they kind of aggregate this data they collected from the local authorities, and they just notify people on top of that, because sometimes people cannot hear the sound on the city street because, well, the windows might be shut, or they might be asleep or any other reason. So they basically amplify those signal and help people being informed.
McCarty Carino: And then as you said, there are some apps that were in use before that people have sort of repurposed for this new reality. Can you tell me about some of those?
Osadchuk: Yeah, so there is an app called Kyiv Digital to use public transportation and some news about some city events, or, I don’t know, maybe some streets being closed due to a marathon or something like that, and you could pay for the parking. But since the large-scale invasion, this app is also notifying citizens of Kyiv that there is an air raid alert and telling them that they should proceed to the shelter.
McCarty Carino: And what I’ve heard a lot about is the Diia app. What was that?
Osadchuk: Yeah, so Diia is the government app that wanted to make communication between people and the government easier. So at the beginning, it was the app that actually had some travel ID. It also could get information from different registries. It also provided with COVID-19 certification, meaning that if you got your two shots and then a booster shot, it will show the documents, and basically, they could be scanned by any QR reader. And since the start of the large-scale invasion, they actually came up with a thing like wartime ID document that kind of aggregated data of text number ID and passport number. It allowed people to apply for some help if they lost their job after the large-scale invasion. So a lot of multiple useful things, and it’s widely in use.
McCarty Carino: And how important have apps been to communication between people?
Osadchuk: Maybe for two years, as of now, social media surpassed television as the main source of news. And basically, Telegram just skyrocketed in all the different —
McCarty Carino: Telegram, the app?
Osadchuk: The app, yes. And people are using it not only to consume news, right? They are also using this as a messenger. So basically, they are connecting to their relatives on both temporarily occupied territories and also outside. Sometimes it’s a great mode of communication since broadband connection, [Global System for Mobile Communication] connection may not be available in some points. But the internet allows [us] to be online at least, send messages and tell [others] that you’re OK.
McCarty Carino: So these apps seem to have been crucial for communication, you know, kind of logistics, keeping people safe. Have Ukrainian citizens been using them in ways to potentially help the effort to fight back?
Osadchuk: Yes, there was a Stop Russian War bot created by Security Service of Ukraine, and there was also “ye Voroh” or “enemy is here” or something like this. Like, there is no direct adequate translation of that. Basically it allowed people by going through verification in Diia, [then they] report on the location of Russian forces. Another well known example is the app called ePPO or “e-anti-air defense” that allows people when they see a flying over them missile to share the direction of the missile and their exact geolocation. That’s most of them that are in use.
McCarty Carino: And what apps are you relying on most in your life?
Osadchuk: I’m maybe not a representative sample, right? But I have this air raid alert app. Basically, it’s always active, meaning if even like, while I’m sleeping or just going somewhere or even it’s on “do not disturb,” it will still go overriding all of those things and will still notify me that there is danger. So I’m using that daily. Diia is also there, simply because, well, there’s a proof of vaccination and some other documents. It’s an essential. And, yeah, the Telegram [app]. So I’m not using Telegram as a messenger because I have some considerations about it. I have, like, more secure modes of communication, but I’m using it for news and maybe for analysis because I’m analyzing disinformation. There is some information from reliable sources, right? So there’s, like, different governmental bodies, news agencies on Telegram, but also there is a lot of disinformation going on there. So it’s useful to have it from research purposes as well.
Related links: More Insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
You can read more about Roman Osadchuk’s research for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab here, where he shares his findings on Russian disinformation online.
And many of the apps Roman mentioned, like Diia, Telegram or the various air raid alert apps, were among the top downloaded apps in Ukraine, according to reporting from Quartz last year.
One of those air raid apps has received a boost from an unlikely source: Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, who has been a big advocate for Ukraine over the last year.
He confirmed to Politico that he voiced a message heard on the English version of the Air Alert app: “Attention. The air alert is over. May the force be with you.”
That app was developed in collaboration with the government and a Ukrainian tech company that had previously focused on apps for planning transit routes and selling concert tickets.
The Washington Post has more details on how Ukraine’s tech industry, which had been thriving before the war, turned its efforts from consumer technology to the tools of wartime.