By Brian Dooley
Using new technology to defend human rights is all the rage. The leading international human rights organizations are dedicating significant resources to applying new tech to expose human rights violations and to protect activists.
Human Rights First set up our Innovation Lab a couple of years ago to create new tech tools, and we are leading conversations about how artificial intelligence and other tools can be used to defend rights.
The simplest tech is usually best, and in Ukraine there is a free, lifesaving app being used all over the country to warn people of imminent missile attacks. I see people in major cities, in small towns, on trains, buses and in bomb shelters all use the popular mobile app to see if there is a current threat of attack. I use it throughout the day and during the night.
It’s basically a map of Ukraine, divided into regions or oblasts, each coded in shades of red or yellow to indicate whether there is a chance of impending attack. Red means you should shelter, striped red means you should expect an attack in the cities of that area, and yellow is comfortingly denoted as “No Worries.”
The app updates the map every 18 seconds, offering real-time information. The app makes clear that although it is not an official channel of information, it draws its information from official Telegram channels. Most important, it enjoys a credibility and trust across the country for providing reliable, local, instant information on the likelihood of attacks.
The app was created by developers at ukrainealarm.com, and is one of several similar apps providing instant information on the chances of air attacks and offering other data, like how many hours people in various areas are supposed to spend in bomb shelters that day.
I’ve spent hours in a range of shelters — when an air raid alarm sounds you’re supposed to dive into whatever’s nearest until the All Clear sounds. I’ve spent between 15 minutes and four hours sheltering in dirt basements under schools, carpeted storage rooms underneath hotels, downstairs in cafes, in metro stations, and outdoors under highways.
I was in the city of Kharkiv this week, where there are daily missile attacks, and the most sought-after hotel rooms are no longer the fancy penthouses on the top floors, but windowless basement rooms hurriedly converted into guest accommodations.
Everywhere is dominated by war, not just in the major centers but also in the smaller places, like the quiet city of Lutsk, where on Saturday there was a funeral for a local soldier killed in the war.
Everyday life in Ukraine has been changed by the Russian invasion. This week there have been long queues at gas stations as shortages take hold in some places. There are military checkpoints, blackouts and curfews across the country. Selling alcohol is still banned in some regions, and trains are often spectacularly late.
Across the country there are street games of archery and rifle shooting where the target is the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In homage to border guard Roman Hrybov’s February retort to the Russian missile cruiser Moskva’s demand that he surrender, you can also buy everything from official postage stamps to T-shirts to packets of coffee bearing the iconic phrase “Russian Warship, Go Fuck Yourself.”
Other items for sale include Ukraine-produced, high quality bullet-proof vests ($370).
But most of Ukraine is functioning fairly normally most of the time, partly thanks to the air raid apps which offer reassurance of when it’s relatively safe to go out onto the streets to get on with daily life, and when you need to hide.