Since the war began in Ukraine on 24 February, more than 6.5 million people have been displaced within the country, while 4.6 million have been forced to flee their homeland altogether.
Many are heading towards refugee camps set up near the border with Poland and Moldova. But the logistical challenges involved in registering such large numbers of people and ensuring their welfare and safety have been huge.
One organization that decided to see what it could do to help was Digital Lift, the social impact arm of no code/low code work management platform provider, monday.com. As a result, members of its Emergency Response Team flew to Poland – the country taking in the largest number of displaced people – in early March in a bid to understand the challenges being faced on the ground.
One member of the team was Senior Developer Vlad Mystetskyi, a Ukrainian who lives in Tel Aviv, Israel (where the company’s head office is based), but whose family are still in his homeland and who was, unsurprisingly, keen to assist. He explained what he saw on arriving at a camp in Korczowa:
There are transportation, or proxy, camps next to the border, which is the first place the refugees arrive. It was winter and cold but they could get food and a place to sleep, and the idea is to help them move onto their next destination from there.
Some people know where they want to go if they have family or friends abroad. But others just left home and don’t know what to do, so there are lots of volunteers trying to find them a place to go and live, not just in Poland but across Europe.
Dealing with the chaos
But Mystetskyi also described the scene at the camp as “chaotic”. Refugees were arriving “in waves” into an already crowded environment and were having to queue for hours to be manually registered for entry and exit. On top of this, significant numbers of volunteer drivers also had to be registered as well as have their identity validated, the aim being to try and guard against people trafficking. But Mystetskyi says:
There were no computers and nothing was automated or digital. Everything was on paper, so if someone wanted to go to Berlin, people would be shouting to see if there were any drivers who were going there. It was all very chaotic.
After a couple of days of evaluating the situation, a number of key challenges were identified. Firstly, it had become clear that a digital registration system was required to track displaced people as they entered and exited the camp. Another goal here was to gain insights into questions, such as how many refugees were there, their average length of stay and their ultimate destination, the objective being to improve resource allocation.
Second on the list of concerns was creating a digital matchmaking system in order to safely pair refugees with registered, volunteer drivers.
After discussing these priorities with the head of camp, the monday.com team built a refugee, driver and volunteer registration system on top of the company’s work management platform within 24 hours. The system, which can be accessed using either a computer or a tablet, made it possible to register people while they queued in order to streamline and speed up the process.
Once registered, refugees and drivers are each given a wristband with a QR code, which volunteers then scan using a mobile phone when they leave, the aim being to track which displaced people have left with which driver and when. Both parties are paired using a mobile matchmaking system, which is also connected to the registration application using an API.
Making an impact
To date, about 90% of the 50,000 registered refugees have been matched to 7,000 registered drivers. Some 5,000 volunteers have also been registered along with details of their language and other skills in order to make capacity planning easier too. Mystetskyi says:
We helped a lot of people and have had a big impact on making their experience in the camps as good as possible under the current circumstances. When we implemented the system, we saw by the second day that the lines were much shorter and the camp felt much less crowded.
By registering drivers and refugees and finding matches based on destination data, it meant people found transportation much more quickly and were able to move on. So I saw first-hand how the system improved the camp’s organization.
But at the same time, he also described the entire experience as an “emotional rollercoaster”. Mystetskyi adds:
One minute I was standing there saying “I want to help but don’t know how to” and the next I was on a high when I saw the improvements we made to people’s lives. The organization of the camp hadn’t been great as it was managed mainly by volunteers, and no one could be ready for that situation. But it was touching to see so many people from different countries coming with the goal of helping others.
The aim now is to roll the system out across all of Poland’s 15 refugee camps as well as camps in nearby Moldova. Some 30 monday.com staff are still on the ground to this end, onboarding and training volunteers and helping them to implement the software. But the systems could also potentially find uses elsewhere in the world, if required, as Mystetskyi says:
We’ve built it so it can scale and it’s a ready-to-go, customizable solution, which we can activate if necessary – although let’s hope we don’t have to use it in future.
This is a story of using tech for social good at its best: by employing software to improve process efficiency and using data to gain insights into what the reality was on the ground, it became possible to smooth the path of vulnerable and traumatised displaced people to what we can only hope will be a safer and better life for them all.