Ukraine Take Shelter: The teenage students who created an ‘AirBnb’ for people offering to host Ukrainian refugees | science and technology
It’s late in San Diego, California, and Avi Schiffman can’t sleep. After attending a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the 19-year-old wants to help, but he doesn’t know how. He tossed and turned all night. The next morning, he calls his classmate, 18-year-old Marco Burstein, who is on the other side of the country. As they talk, a light bulb goes out. And so, on March 3, the project Ukraine takes shelter was born. The two teenagers created the webpage in just three days and they hope it will become a tool for connecting Ukrainian refugees with their hosts. Since going live, the page has already attracted more than 10,000 guests worldwide. “It’s exciting. We’ve done something useful and people are using it,” the two youngsters explain via video call.
It’s not the first time the young men have used their technological savvy to respond to a global crisis. In January 2020, before Covid-19 appeared to be a real threat, Schiffman created nCov2019.live, which was to become one of the major trackers of the pandemic – the page still receives 30 million visitors every day. Before turning 18, the student was recognized as “Personality of the Year” by the Webby Awards, which reward the best websites in the world. He turned down an $8 million offer to add advertising to his website. “I don’t need it, there are more precious things than that,” he said from his room in San Diego.
Since then he has worked side by side with Burstein, whom he met at Harvard. After many video calls but little sleep, both admit they knew “almost nothing” about Ukraine until a few days ago. ” His population [of 44 million] surprised us a lot. It’s a very big country,” they say.
Ukraine Take Shelter has a simple and intuitive interface, reminiscent of the AirBnb online accommodation platform. “The goal is for it to be used by people who, unfortunately, are under a high level of stress. We don’t understand why the only solution should be filling out forms and endless paperwork,” they say.
When refugees first open the website, they can enter their location and immediately receive offers from hosts in nearby towns. They can specify the number of people seeking asylum, or search by any filter imaginable: age, length of stay, medical needs, transportation, pets, etc. “We want it to be really easy to use,” Schiffman says.
During the development phase, the two students made sure to secure the site as much as possible. Rumors of a possible hack by Russia quickly emerged. “It was one of the threats we had been counting on from the start,” they say. They have hardened the portal against cyberattacks and also verify user data to prevent fraud. “The algorithm punishes any suspected automated activity, so there is no room for bots on the site.”
Only three days passed between the call where they conceived the idea and the realization of the page. During this period, neither slept for more than five hours in total. “We ate without stopping our work. I used my only break to take one of my midterm exams at Harvard,” says Burstein.
One of the great things about the page is that anyone can volunteer to be a host. “Anyone with free space is welcome, whether it’s a mattress or an entire apartment,” Schiffman says. Currently, the countries with the most offers are all in Europe. “France and Germany have a lot of users, but Spain is also close. People from all corners of the planet are joining us. It’s amazing to be able to help when you’re thousands of miles away from the conflict.
The two boys haven’t seen each other in person for months. “We live in a completely digital world. A project like this would have been impossible a few years ago,” they say. But they deny that their youth was a major factor in their success. “Today, you can learn everything online. Age is no obstacle for anyone,” insists Schiffman. “Everything I knew about programming before I came to Harvard, I learned on YouTube. If you know how to ask the question, you’ll always find the answer.
When we can use our brains to write as fast as a computer, the possibilities will be endless.
When asked where they see the technology in 10 years, the two smile nervously. “The future has possibilities that seem impossible to us today,” Burstein says. Schiffman notes how much progress remains to be made in areas such as genetic engineering, augmented reality and brain-connection. “When we can use our brains to write as fast as a computer, the possibilities will be endless.”
Until then, they prefer to think about the near future. The page has grown steadily, surpassing 100 million views, and Schiffman and Bernstein are working tirelessly to keep it growing. Ukraine Take Shelter is now available in a dozen different languages. “Right now, we are focused on fixing all bugs and adding updates that improve the user experience.” More recently, they made it compatible with Viber, the most popular messaging app in Eastern Europe.
Last weekend, a woman from the Netherlands contacted Schiffman asking how to remove her house from the platform, but her reason for doing so was positive: this week, an entire Ukrainian family will arrive at her apartment. Two days ago, Marta and Piotr, a young couple from Warsaw, welcomed a woman and her seven-year-old son through the site. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Schiffman and Burstein are catching up on their sleep. “It’s a real surprise. The idea worked,” they say.