It’s a dead night in San Diego (California, United States) and Avi Schiffmann can’t sleep. After attending a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this 19-year-old wants to help, but doesn’t know how. After several turns in bed, he falls asleep without answer. The next morning, he calls his colleague Marco Burstein (18 years old), who is on the other side of the country. The conversation flows and it doesn’t take long for the light bulb to turn on. This is how the project was born on March 3 Ukraine Take Shelter, a website created in just three days that aspires to become the reference page for Ukrainian refugees to find a host home. Since its launch, the website already has more than 10,000 registered hosts around the world. “It’s exciting, we’ve done something useful and people are taking advantage of it,” they both confess by video call.
In January 2020, before covid was perceived as a real threat, Schiffmann launched nCov2019.live, one of the largest trackers in the world: still today it is visited by 30 million users every day. Before turning 18, this student was recognized as “Person of the Year” by the webby awards —the award given to the “best websites in the world”— and refused eight million dollars for adding advertising to its website. “I don’t need them, there are things much more valuable than that,” she says from his room in San Diego.
From there he has worked side by side with Burstein, whom he met in the classrooms of Harvard. Many video calls and few hours of sleep after starting the project, both admit that they knew “practically nothing” about Ukraine until a few days ago: “We were very surprised by the inhabitants that it had [44 millones]It’s a really big country.”
Ukraine Take Shelter It has an intuitive and simple appearance, like a kind of Airbnb (tourist accommodation platform), according to the creators. “The goal is to be used by people who, unfortunately, are exposed to high levels of stress. […] We do not understand that the only solution was to fill out infinite forms and papers”, they say.
When they enter the web, refugees provide their location and immediately receive offers of reception in the nearest cities. They can also specify the number of people applying for asylum or any other filter imaginable: age, length of stay, medical care, transportation, pets, etc. “We want it to be very easy to use,” says Schiffmann.
In the development phase, both students became obsessed with making the site as secure as possible. Rumors soon arose a possible computer attack by Russia: “That was one of the threats we had from the beginning.” To avoid this, they have shielded the portal against any cyberattack. They also verify the data that each user enters to avoid scams: “The algorithm punishes any suspicion of automatic activity, so there is no room for bots on the web.”
From the call in which they came up with the project until the website was ready, barely three days passed. During that period, neither of them had more than five hours of sleep. “We ate without stopping work. I took advantage of my only break to take a semester exam (mid-term) at Harvard,” acknowledges Burstein.
One of the great advantages of the web is that anyone can offer to host it. “Anyone who has a spare room is welcome: it doesn’t matter if it’s a mattress or an entire apartment,” says Schiffmann. The countries with the largest offer so far are European, according to the developer: “France and Germany have many users, but Spain is also close. […] People from all corners of the planet are joining, it is incredible to be able to help being thousands of kilometers away from the conflict”.
They themselves have not seen each other in person for months: “We live in a fully digital world, a project like this would have been impossible a few years ago.” In their impetus to take advantage of these possibilities, both deny their youth as a value to be highlighted. “Today you can learn anything on the Internet, age is not an impediment for anyone,” says Schiffmann. And he adds: “Everything I knew about programming before entering Harvard I learned it from youtube tutorials. […] If you know how to ask the question, you will always find the answer.”
When asked how they see technology in ten years, the nervous smile gives them away. “The future holds possibilities for us that we think are impossible today,” says Burstein. For his part, Schiffmann warns of how much remains to be done in fields such as genetic engineering, augmented reality or brain connectivity: “When we can read and write with our minds at the same speed as a computer, the possibilities will be endless. ”.
Until then, they prefer to think in the short term. While the page does not stop growing —it already accumulates more than 100 million visits—, Schiffmann and Burstein take pains to outline all the details as much as possible: Ukraine Take Shelter is now available in a dozen different languages. “Right now we are focused on polishing all the bugs (bugs) and add updates that improve the user experience. In the latest, for example, they have incorporated Viber, the most widely used messaging application in Eastern Europe.
Last weekend, a woman from the Netherlands contacted Schiffmann to ask how to stop offering her house on the web. The reason was hopeful: this week a whole Ukrainian family will arrive at her apartment. Marta and Piotr, a young couple who lives in Warsaw (Poland), have welcomed a woman and her seven-year-old son for days thanks to the web. Meanwhile, Schiffmann and Burstein recover hours of sleep on the other side of the globe: “It’s a real blast, the idea has worked.”