Ukraine's Revolutionary Tech

How Ukraine's protesters used apps, Bitcoin, and interactive maps to oust an autocrat.

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Mar 5 2014, 4:00pm
Image: Flickr

Though their victory was quickly overshadowed by the Russian military, it's still worth taking a minute to point out that Ukraine's protesters were incredibly successful. A populist movement that stitched together diverse (and often very uncomfortable) allies managed to overthrow a well-armed, authoritarian regime and chase an autocrat out of town. And they did it largely through months of persistent, organized protest: with a little help from some truly revolutionary software and technology. 

An effort of the size and significance of the Euromaidan protests requires intense management, even if no one wants to step forward and claim the mantle of manager. You'll recall that Occupy Wall Street—a movement celebrated for its tech savvy—prided itself for being "leaderless." Crowd-sourced donation platforms, social media channels, and livestream software allowed it to function that way. No one person had control over the treasury or the intel; it was communally shared. Ukraine's Euromaidan protestors improved on Occupy's open source tech in almost every way. 

One designer built a hub for news and information that not only processed donations through PayPal, but that accepted Bitcoin as well—and thousands of dollars worth of BTC were actually donated. Another team of developers put together an interactive map, MaydanNeeds.com, that didn't just solicit gear, food and shelter for the weary occupiers of Independence Square—it allowed users to drop pins to let donors know exactly where and when the goods were needed. It too was used dozens of times a day. Then there was the team of start-up journalists who coordinated a gripping, effective livestream of the key action.

To better understand out how each helped shape the movement, I reached out to the activists and designers behind the revolutionary tech. 

Oleksandr Guzenko, whose day job is project manager at Worldwide News Ukraine, was one of the co-founders of MaydanNeeds.com. In an email interview, he explain how the effort worked: "Maydanneeds.com is a unique project, launched by a group of volunteers in January, 2014," he wrote. "The rapid and drastic development of events at Euromaidan made it a burning necessity to keep under control all demands and need of people, spending days and nights in downtown Kyiv. Bearing in mind that most inhabitants of Euromaidan come from the regions of Ukraine, it is essential to create a proper environment to live on Kyiv's main square."

Screenshot showing requests for assistance posted on MaydanNeeds

Guzenko told me that the site was the brainchild of a number of Ukrainian citizens, business leaders, and local celebrities: One, Anna Zajachkivska, was last year's Miss Ukraine. Gennadiy Kurochka, founder and managing partner of CFC Consulting, Borys Danevych, a partner at Marchenko-Danevych, and Yuriy Honcharov, founder of Cawas Ltd. are among the principal founders, too. The team helped ensure that MaydanNeeds would stay online day and night.

"Throughout all the events, happening in Kyiv, we have established a large and flexible network for cooperation and facilitation of how to keep all the needs on track and deliver these needs to people in the shortest time and in the most concise manner. We maintain all the cooperation 24/7 and present the most updated needs on the website or on the official Facebook page," Guzenko said. I asked him how well the system worked, whether it was still in use, and whether he had any idea of how many requested goods actually arrived. 

"Our effort and contribution are measured not by the number of goods or the number of services delivered," he said. "It is technically not possible to keep track of each single individual of tens or hundreds of thousands individuals who are willing to help and in which manner.

"On the other hand, depending on the situation we daily receive more than 30 messages with demands and needs, requests or possibilities to somehow contribute or help at Euromaidan," he continued. "We also keep track of how many people have seen/liked or shared a Facebook post with a need prescribed. Numbers vary according to the day and time, during the most violent days, posts on the Facebook page are viewed by almost 2,000 people, while the tendency of web-site views varies from 2,000 to 15,000 per day."

He has successfully overseen the delivery of goods to Euromaidan from Poland and Italy, he added.

The HelpEuromaidan.info website quickly became another staple during the revolution, both for information on the latest happenings and cash donations for the protesters. The site was built by a web developer who went only by Yura.

"The reason why I decided to create it," Yura said, was that there "was a big mess with the information streams. It was really hard to find some important and official information in the first days. All the information was scattered over all the social networks. So I just wanted to make some kind of hub so people who are interested in helping to those who are on the Maidan could easily find important, actual and trusted information." 

From December 16th to mid-February, the site received over 200,000 pageviews. "I can see that the page was actively visited only during the main actions on the Maidan," Yura said.

There was an iPhone and iPad app, too, that featured a closely curated news feed, in addition to working "SOS" phone numbers and "a list of places where you can get food, accommodation, assistance" and with "coordinates of Wi-Fi regularly updated and supplemented." From five reviewers on the App store, it's earned only positive marks. I downloaded the app, and found it more intuitive and potentially useful than the goofy, redundant ones I'd seen rolled out during Occupy.

The HelpEuromaidan app

And yes, the site brought in donations. "This page is not the only way to find how to donate. Social networks do their job. But as far as I know there was many donations via PayPal." He wouldn't say how much, but he did say the Bitcoin transaction record was transparent: 20 BTC, or over $10,000, was donated to the cause over 111 transactions. They even accepted—and received—donations in the less popular cryptocurrency Litecoin.

"But you should understand, that people in Kiev did much more for Maidan than all the financial support," Yura said. 

Another crucial web-based operation was Espreso TV's livestream, which provided a constant view of the ground. The fledgling media company had 8 HD livestreams running throughout the protest, journalists in the fray, and editors stitching it together for the hundreds of thousands of concurrent viewers watching across the city, nation, and globe. Their setup relied on ToolsOnAir's Broadcast Suite, which offers "broadcast video professionals a customisable TV station in a Mac."

"Using ToolsOnAir's just:in, we are able to gather footage from multiple camera sources at once, editing and creating an EDL in realtime," Espreso TV's technical director Alexander Korostyshevsky told the news outlet TVB Europe, which explained that "the system allows the user to create and disseminate news as it happens. Production and playout are equally streamlined, and chief editors Vadim Denisenko and Vitaly Pyrovych assemble and edit multiple playlists via ToolsOnAir's just:live and just:play."

The livestream became the de facto official channel of Euromaidan—it was the best way to see what was happening at the square, a communication tool for activists, and a deterrent to state forces. 

Then, of course, there was social media. The Euromaidan Facebook page became the most-liked in the nation, and provided news and information sympathetic to the activist cause. After the successful overthrow of Yankuvych, it's been used as an anti-propaganda tool to combat Russia media claims that Ukrainians support Putin's intervention

Locals posted dramatic photos to Flickr under Creative Commons licenses to ensure they'd be shared—the photo below is a good example—a practice that helped propagate the "surreal" quality of the conflicts, and snared the attention of the West, if only briefly and sometimes for the wrong reasons. There was a host of low-tech, too: the opposition rigged together catapaults, manned bulldozers, and put together barricades to head off the Berkut police.

Protesters man a bulldozer. Image: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia

All told, the Euromaidan protests demonstrated a tech and media savvy that's arguably unparalleled by any protest movement in history. They had to be, to combat a regime that was sending out what's arguably the most Orwellian text message in history and to turn both clubs and smartphones against protesters and citizen journalists. 

Occupy, which saw a group of young hackers try to cobble together their own "free" internet providers, was exceptionally high-tech, too. But in terms of software and web design, Euromaidan excelled. Which makes sense—Ukraine has the world's 4th highest concentration of IT professionals, behind the United States, India, and Russia, and it is far smaller than any of those populous, sprawling nations. No wonder we saw so many good websites and online services spring out of the occupation of Independence Square. And no wonder that those developers plan to carry on, now that Putin's Russia has invaded the east.

"The website is still working," Guzenko said of MaydanNeeds, "and there are people willing to help as much as they possibly can. This is an ongoing project."