Meet Diia: the Ukrainian app used to do taxes … and report Russian soldiers
It is the award-winning app that allows Ukrainians to report Russian soldiers in their neighbourhoods while also uploading their tax returns, renewing their passports or claiming a free student bus fare.
Now the deputy prime minister, Mykhailo Federov, has revealed the inside story of how 25 developers, who were set on transforming Ukraine into one of the world’s most digitally advanced societies, have kept the country running during wartime.
Federov, 32, told members of the European parliament the mission began by thinking like a start-up company: to create an app that was as easy to use as WhatsApp or Booking.com. Now, the team is working to make it an open-source tool that Ukraine can give to other countries to build a digital public infrastructure.
Within eight hours of launching in September 2019, the app, called Diia, meaning “action”, had 2 million users.
Its peacetime services include official tasks, such as registering a birth or marriage, or renewing a passport, but after Russia invaded, use of the app rocketed as it was commandeered for the wartime effort.
“After hostilities broke out we thought: what did the citizens of Ukraine need? They needed money, protection, compensation when rockets hit their house,” Federov said. Now, for example, the app allows victims of Russian bombings to apply for funds to repair damaged buildings and to continue to listen to the radio during blackouts.
It also permits the creation of a digital “evacuation document” combining all personal information in one place to “accelerate identification at checkpoints”; “e-aid” financial support for small businesses “to keep the economy going”; state-backed mortgages for military and key workers, and “e-enemy” – a chatbot to report the location of Russian troops.
The Ukrainian app Diia that allows citizens to pay taxes, report enemy troops or renew their passport and 117 other things from their phone. Mykhailo Federov the deputy prime minister told how they approached the app like a “start up” but without the profit motive pic.twitter.com/tRwmt71dl3
— Lisa O'Carroll (@lisaocarroll) May 25, 2023
Dragos Tudorache, a Romanian MEP and co-rapporteur on the European parliament committee assessing the Artificial Intelligence Act, said: “It is truly remarkable how Ukraine has managed to make significant strides in this digital transition, a transition that has yet to be achieved by some, even in times of peace.”
With politicians worldwide often held in low regard, Federov told how they set about building trust in the app by putting people first, making the app “human-centred”.
The swift take-up of the government app is almost certainly fuelled by the support for the war and trust in President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s approach, and is unlikely to be mirrored in other countries, such as the UK, where trust in government departments may be in shorter supply.
The app is now installed on 19m devices, 70% of all smartphones, and has become a model for governments all around the world trying to digitise services.
Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, on Tuesday said it was helping countries including Colombia, Kosovo and Zambia to adopt their own version of the Diia code. Estonia, an e-governance leader, is also using parts of it.
Federov said: “A lot of officials in different countries forget that human behaviour nowadays is about clicking a few clicks. It is not about circles of hell, wasting people’s time.
“We acted more like a start-up, not like a public sector company,” Federov told MEPs, encouraging an “an agile management culture” headed by only 25 developers.
“We looked at Uber, Airbnb, Booking.com, mobile banking. You can speak about digital education but look how elderly people are getting used to technology. They might say they don’t want to deal with their bank online but they are very quick to use WhatsApp to send a funny postcard to their grandchildren,” he said.
Maksym Svysenko, 22, a Ukrainian law and tech student visiting Brussels, said he had used it from the start, as had his parents and grandparents.
“To me it represents freedom to do things, and freedom to continue to do everything since the invasion,” he said. “It allowed so many people to cross the border. If you go abroad and you don’t have or you have lost your passport you can just go to the embassy and show them Diia. You don’t have to figure out how to prove who you say you are.”
Svysenko said he also used it on local bus services to prove he qualified for a free fare and enjoyed the monthy government surveys, including a recent poll asking the public how streets named after Russians should be renamed.
Asked whether he had any privacy concerns, he said: “The main thing that makes Diaa so successful is the good relations between government and citizens.”