In Ukraine, USAID Created a Blueprint for Digital Citizenship. Now They’re Exporting It – DNyuz

In Ukraine, USAID Created a Blueprint for Digital Citizenship. Now They’re Exporting It

As Ukrainian troops took to the field in the early days of the Russian invasion, a different sort of reinforcement force assembled in Ukraine’s basements and bomb shelters. They were there to make sure that Ukraine’s Digital Citizenship app worked, so panicked Ukrainians could use it as they fled or went to the frontlines.

Sampower Power, USAID administrator, said to a group of Ukraine supporters on Tuesday that it wasn’t simple or straight forward. A lone USAID official worked in the cold, armed only with a small gas-station generator, to get contracts out to coders. The Eurasia Foundation members who worked with USAID to create the app crammed into an air raid shelter in Kyiv as the sirens began to ring overhead.

“When the Russian army cut off the internet in occupied territories, [Ukraine’s] Ministry of Digital Transformation organized telecom teams and traveled with them through the wreckage in bulletproof vests and helmets to repair damaged base stations and fiber optic cables and to restore internet access,” Power said.

From the outside, the result of all of that effort was difficult to notice. And that was largely the point. The DIIA team and app allowed millions of Ukrainans to keep a semblance normal life, even while Russia was trying to wipe them out. They were able pay their taxes, get financial help, report damages to their home, etc. Now, USAID is looking to bring some version of DIIA to Colombia, Kosovo, and Zambia “for starters”, Power said.

DIIA has some 19 million users around the world and allows Ukrainians to do everything from register a business to report on the location of Russian soldiers. Power added that the portal also serves as a blueprint for how digital citizenship, government interaction, and online security could be implemented in the future. “We’ve been working with the Ukrainian government since 2014 on cyber protections,” for the services behind DIIA, she said. Unlike the way many U.S. tech companies develop apps–creating a service first and then figuring out how to add security later (if ever)–the Ukrainian government knew it had to bring a security-first approach or no one would trust it. It is impossible to hack the app because it does not store or hold any data. It interacts instead with data and registrants stored in cloud-based enterprise services that are safely outside the country where Russian missiles cannot reach them.

As Power outlined, not only was the app essential in keeping the Ukrainian economy going, it was also vital to reassure Western partners like the United States that Ukraine could be trusted with aid.

“I don’t know if we could have gotten that money out of Congress if not per DIIA. DIIA gives us the ability to [show] direct budget support to go to Ukraine, then to teachers, healthcare workers and first responders. There’s also a digital record. It’s not, you know, some official deciding this or that. It actually is going directly into the bank accounts in a manner that just would have been untraceable in a prior regime.”

Mykhailo Fedorov, who serves as Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, described how data entered into the app by citizens, such as information about damaged areas, allows the Ukrainian government to essentially predict the size of a potential bribe from a contractor to the goverment based on the area and size of the project. He said that the current focus is to eliminate the human element from services with the greatest corruption risk.

In a video that accompanied the presentation Fedorov painted a 2030 idealistic picture of an Ukraine transformed by DIIAa nation which is attracted to business and tech startups because of its highly-streamlined bureaucracy and of course, a peaceful and whole country.

“Ukraine now has the most affordable e-residency,” the presentation forecasted, “Ukraine ranks first in the world by the number of startups per capita. All notarial actions are performed online and Ukrainian courts use artificial intelligence to guide them. Ukrainian Customs is the fastest and most automatic in the entire world. You can do car registration and customs clearance in just three clicks on your smartphone. Because of war and internal migration, we have built…flexible modern digital education. Brave military and civilians get quality treatment with modern remote monitoring and e-health systems.”

Whether or not that vision of Ukraine is realistic depends on factors well beyond online access to government services. But for the United States, the picture alone has value, which is part of why USAID now wants to replicate it elsewhere.

“This is now something that other countries can look to…at a time when Putin is trying to win an information war in the Global South,” Power said. “For Ukraine to be also highlighting this aspect of what Ukraine does, mainly a democratic aspect, a crowd-sourced aspect and aspects focused on anti-corruption, it’s also a very important message as well as a very important tool.”

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