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Anything can happen so IT teams need to be ready, says Kyiv City Council CIO

Kyiv City Council’s IT team has experienced challenges faced by no other tech department and is determined to use what it has learnt to take Ukraine forward when the war is over

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Turning a transport booking service into an air raid alert system is not the typical task of a CIO, but that is what the IT team at Kyiv City Council was forced to do in the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

When Russian tanks entered Ukraine in February and missiles rained down on cities, the IT team at Kyiv City Council embarked on an innovation journey born of necessity. Its response to the war has given the team an experience like no other.

Oleg Polovynko, CIO at Kyiv City Council, told Computer Weekly the challenges it was solving had a strong connection with citizens.

“This is our reality now, and our challenge is to manage the population and make their lives safer and of a better quality,” he said. “All our solutions are creating a fast and trusted way of communicating with citizens because any shit can happen, whether it’s an epidemic, a war, or a natural disaster.”

Polovynko said the safety of citizens came first, and to this end, the Kyiv Council IT team’s first job when the war started was to quickly develop a method of warning people when missiles were heading in their direction.

Essential services

Through the pre-existing Kyiv Digital mobile app, which was launched in January 2021, the team adapted an existing transport information service to send air raid warnings to citizens. At the time, although Kyiv had a public alert siren, it only covered about 30% of the city.

Deputy CIO Victoria Itskovych said the service it adapted to warn citizens of air raids was originally a transport application offering ticketing, parking and municipal information services.

“After the war started, we had to quickly change this app into an air raid alert system. All municipal transport stopped in the early days and weeks of the war, and the main goal was to provide notifications and warnings of missile attacks,” she said.

“Our challenge is to manage the population and make their lives safer and of a better quality. All our solutions are creating a fast and trusted way of communicating with citizens”
Oleg Polovynko, Kyiv City Council

“The transport information service already had the notification functionality, but the problem was it was not designed to send notifications to the entire user base of millions of people,” said Itskovych. The team made the changes and had the system up and running in hours.

This was the first service launched in wartime by the team, but more soon followed, as people needed help with the basics of life. “After the air raid notification service, we launched other services in the app, including giving information about where people could safely buy food and pharmaceuticals,” she said.

When the war started, everything closed. Then stores reopened slowly, often only for a couple of hours a day, and there was no source of information on what was open at what time, said Itskovych.

“We launched a channel with up-to-date information integrated with a map. After the pharmacies, we launched a service for buying food, accessing water sources, medical centres, petrol stations, etc. The basics of life,” she said.

The next project saw a service developed for small businesses that, for safety reasons, had to suddenly close after the invasion. “We launched a campaign for SMEs that were going to open and put them on a map telling people they were open. This was a great success.”

Itskovych said this was always intended to be a temporary service and people are now returning to Google Maps for information. “This service is coming to an end now, but in the first months it was rather essential,” she added.

Staying connected

Another essential in today’s world is internet connectivity. In the early months of the war, the City Council also developed a service to ensure people had connectivity in air raid shelters, known as Wi-Fi in Shelters.

“People who did not leave Kyiv were forced to hide in shelters, which are normally under buildings, with no connectivity. We made a platform where people hiding in shelters leave their request for connectivity and internet providers would offer services,” said Itskovych.

The requester and provider connection platform covered 815 shelters in the early months of the war. Telecoms companies offered the service free of charge, allowing people to send messages to family and friends to let them know they were safe.

In the early days of the war, about 40 people were working on IT for the City Council. “One of the main challenges was the safety of our people. Most live in the Kyiv region, which was occupied early in the war, and many people could not work,” said Itskovych.

Before the Russian invasion, Kyiv City Council was already on a journey to digitise its services and work to create a smart city had begun with the transport information and booking system. The app also offered e-democracy services, such as giving people a say in how money is spent on projects in the city, known as a participatory budget.

The participatory budget sees money set aside for proposed budgets, which citizens then vote on to see which receives funding. “This is within the Kyiv Digital app, and although it is on hold during the war, it has been very successful,” said Itskovych.

E-petitions are another part of the city’s digital push. “Of course, petitions were there before, but by integrating them in Kyiv Digital, we made them available to all citizens. It is easier now and there are more petitions,” added Itskovych.

For the future, CIO Polovynko said Kyiv City Council wants to take what it has learned to help improve citizens’ lives. “We want quality feedback and we want to give more power and provide more solutions to what people need.”

He said this includes as many channels for people to communicate their needs with the City Council as possible, such as through e-petitions and participatory budgets. “Our goal is for 100% of services to be electronic,” said Polovynko.

This goal is aided by another major project, known as Diia. The Diia App is a national project for the whole of Ukraine. Launched in October 2020 by the Ministry of Digitalisation, it provides electronic documents such as driving licences, passports, Covid tests and birth certificates on people’s smartphones. Currently, about 16 million people use the app, which, during the current conflict, has helped people displaced by the war access their documents.

“Massive cyber attacks were launched just before the invasion because the Russians wanted to make a mess of our cyber infrastructure so we would be so busy fixing it we wouldn’t notice hacks”
Victoria Itskovych, Kyiv City Council

Cyber threat

One thing that wasn’t known to the Kyiv IT team but did see an increase when Russia invaded, is state-sponsored cyber attacks from Russia.

“You have the same war in cyber as you do in the physical world,” said Itskovych. “Massive cyber attacks were launched just before the invasion because the Russians wanted to make a mess of our cyber infrastructure so we would be so busy fixing it we wouldn’t notice hacks. One thing that saved us was a heterogeneous infrastructure. We didn’t have any data leakage, with none stolen.”

But she said some less essential municipal systems were deliberately shut down to enable teams to focus on keeping essential systems running. “When your country is attacked, you don’t need all your services, so we temporarily shut down some services that were not required so we could strengthen them and increase our security,” said Itskovych.

The Russian attack has seen the IT community in the Ukraine come together to support the war effort. “From the first day of the war, IT professionals here in Ukraine started in small groups trying to do something. We had the IT Army that was created as a brand for IT professionals that wanted to help defend the country,” she said.

“After the war, we will be stronger, because when you are under stress you become stronger. After we win, we will see a giant boost in technology and will have a lot of work to rebuild. We need money, but we can’t rely on other countries forever, so we need to produce. IT can be one of our main exports. IT was already a noticeable part of our exports, but this will increase.” 

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