on with kara swisher

How Diia Is Becoming the Ukrainian Government’s Real Everything App

Kara Swisher talks to Mykhailo Fedorov and Samantha Power about how it evolved.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Long before Russia launched its invasion of mainland Ukraine, the Ukrainian government launched an app called Diia that was aimed at a different enemy: corruption. Diia gave citizens a digital ID and was built to grant them access to basic government services without having to stand in line or bribe a government official. Then COVID happened, and the app was adapted to include assigning digital vaccination cards. Then the invasion happened, and it was adapted into a kind of digital wartime Swiss Army knife that allowed Ukrainians to not just file their taxes but report Russian troop movements, register missile damage, and access critical government announcements.

The latest episode of On With Kara Swisher was recorded at a recent event in Washington, D.C., where Kara moderated a discussion with Ukrainian deputy prime minister (and minister for digital transformation) Mykhailo Fedorov and USAID administrator Samantha Power about the app, the Ukrainian tech sector’s war efforts, how USAID has tried to help, and whether Diia would work for other countries. Below is a segment of their conversation.

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Kara Swisher: You started developing [Diia] before the war but also before COVID. What did you learn using Diia during COVID that became useful once the conflict with Russia started?

Mykhailo Fedorov (via translator): Diia was conceptualized in 2019. And we launched it in February of 2020. The most important part of the philosophy of this Diia is caring about the human being. So when COVID started, we began to look for an answer. What is it that troubles our people? They need to know where they can come and get vaccinated. They need to sign up to be vaccinated. But it’s important to note that a real technological revolution took place during COVID. The first day when a pandemic was announced, I gave a phone call to the prime minister and said, let’s discuss the strategy, Let us stop making face-to-face meetings and do them online. Until today, we hold many government meetings online and we created another special app to allow people who stay home to continue working from home.

There’s no doubt that any critical situation is an incentive for development of new technologies.

Kara Swisher: Okay, so Diia now includes a chatbot for citizens to report on Russian troop movements. There’s all kinds of things. How did you shift the application of it? because that’s a dramatic shift from vaccine information to “here are the Russians in this part” or “here are the troops” or things like that.

Mykhailo Fedorov: It is the same philosophy. The invasion starts and the main question is what it is that the people need right now. Information in real time. So we launched TV, radio in Diia. Quick payments of subsidies for evacuation. So we launched that service. Once airstrikes began to happen and missiles were hitting people’s homes, we launched the service to register the damages. And so on. So we keep thinking about the Ukrainian person and their needs. We keep this in our minds.

Kara Swisher: So when you’re doing that, when, say U.S. tech companies are thinking of something, oh, they need a dating service, a laundry service — all this silliness, most of the time — who sits around and goes, ”We need a, — where’s the bombs?” Who thinks of that within your group? Because that’s a very, even though you’re giving information, it’s a very different thing than, you know, basic services most people use these apps for in other parts of the world.

Mykhailo Fedorov: The main task of a government is to understand the needs of the people to frame them and to find ways to resolve them. We are not a creative team who invents some entertaining projects. We have a clear cycle of policy making. We do an ongoing sociological survey. We collect data on our boards, and we analyze those data. And it’s very important that the culture in our ministry is different from a typical government culture.

Kara Swisher: Sure.

Mykhailo Fedorov: We have people who came to serve this mission.

Kara Swisher: So what is the most important of the things that you’ve added on? You know, you were painting a picture of normal times where you would use all these services and try to make government more efficient and less corrupt. But what is the most useful thing right now in the conflict, of just one feature that you have that’s been most useful.

Mykhailo Fedorov: That’s a good question. Because we have many very good, cool services, but I think the most useful is not really a service. It’s the new culture in the government. Government officials are competing to get their product a priority in launching that new service. It’s a change of thinking, change of mindset. They are now thinking —

Kara Swisher: Within the bigger government.

Mykhailo Fedorov: — how to address and resolve people’s needs as conveniently as possible.

Kara Swisher: So Administrator Power, cybersecurity has been a focus of USAID’S work in Ukraine since 2020. Explain why that is. Was it part of the development of Diia or a different project? It’s gotta be top of mind here, given Ukraine is ground zero for Russian disinformation. That’s where they tested out everything, long ago. And have continued to attack.

Samantha Power: Absolutely. Before I answer that, if I could just bring home why, how Diia matters and how sort of in a way, removed we are here from the ground situation in Ukraine, as we were walking in earlier this morning deputy Prime Minister Federoff was showing me photos of his neighborhood, which was bombed overnight and showing photos of the damage to the roof. Well, first of all, that’s harrowing and brutal. And the Russians have to be held accountable for these crimes, one. Two, somebody will be going and snapping a picture of the damage to their roof, uploading it into the app, and at some point getting back an estimate of what the damage is. And at some point, actually restitution for that damage will come via the government to the citizen.

It’s just mind blowing how, in real time, how useful this is just to, To your exchange with him. In terms of cybersecurity, there’s no way to imagine re retaining the trust of the people. If the system that every week offers more and more services to the people is vulnerable to Russian hacking. So as a design feature of Diia, very much following the lead of the Ukrainian officials who were designing it, they said to us, “We have to do these two things in parallel. We have to think about citizen services. We have to think about this as an anti-corruption tool, but we can’t have our cybersecurity protections for the government living over here and Diia living as this sort of trusting being over, over here.”

And so we have been working with the Ukrainian government since 2014 on cyber protections more broadly, to electricity infrastructure, to government bank accounts and the like. But once this became embedded into the Ukrainian government infrastructure, as it happens, digital infrastructure, and once it was clear that citizens’ lives would all live exactly in this single device, that became incredibly important.

And these hackathons that they have, I mean, they have some of the — I mean, I know there are hackers everywhere, but they have some what appear to be extremely sophisticated hackers hacking themselves day in, day out, looking for those vulnerabilities. And this is the dog that has not barked in this war, in this phase of the war. Given how much Russia is investing in bringing down Ukrainian systems. Every day we should be hearing about that. Occasionally, there’s a temporary outage and then the systems are back up and running. And that’s in part because not only with Diia but with the rest of the functioning of the state. Cybersecurity is not an afterthought. It’s sort of like turning the lights on you. You know, you can’t think about anything that the state does without thinking about the Russian Federation’s attempt to destroy it. Right, exactly.

Kara Swisher: Right. No, that’s just Twitter on a daily basis. But anti-corruption efforts were an important — I saw you laugh — part of developing Diia and with the government. How does it fight corruption? Explain that. You were talking about no more lines, et cetera, et cetera. Which is appealing to anyone who uses government services. But corruption remains a problem in Ukraine. The chief of the Supreme Court was arrested on May, I think 18th, and a high-level corruption case expands. So talk a little bit about the corruption issues, because that was the original thought of this, is to solve this problem that plagues many countries around the world.

Mykhailo Fedorov: First of all, we haven’t really started working on the courts.

Kara Swisher: Oh, no. Neither have we. Neither have we, but go ahead.

Mykhailo Fedorov: But this fear where we did apply our effort, construction, such cases you won’t find there. I really was always interested in how independent government institutions are built in the U.S. and we as a team studied your history. We understand that this is the path we are going to walk on, a hundred percent sure. The anti-corruption infrastructure is quite powerful now. So what we are focused on right now, our task is to remove the role of human agency in those services where corruption risks are the highest. What we are trying to accomplish is that information that needs to be verified and checked in the registries is done automatically without human involvement. So when an individual wants to start a construction and they file an application for a permit, registries automatically verify, one registry talks to another registry to see if there are any restrictions imposed for certain construction. So it’s impossible that there’ll be a subjective decision of an official saying, “No, I’m not going to allow this.”

The principle of our work is all services are launched automatically. So you can always arrange it in such a way that the human factor will be minimized.

Kara Swisher: So “no humans” is the solution. All bots. Yes. He’s like, “Yes. All bots.” That’s coming.

Samantha Power: Kara, can I add just one quick thing on this cause it’s such a good question — but like we say, “more transparent, more visible”— but how, practically, does it work? One of the things that Congress has given USAID, since this full-scale invasion began, is an unprecedented amount of money in direct budget support — which sounds kind of obvious, of course we would do that, we want to stand with Ukraine — but it’s totally unprecedented, this kind of scale of investment. And we’re talking along the lines of about $15 billion in, in a sense, cash to the Ukrainian government. Which was famously corrupt in past years and still has work, as you noted, to do on corruption today.

I don’t know if we could have gotten that money out of Congress, if not for Diia. Because what Diia allows us to do is — that direct budget support goes, yes to the Ukrainian government, but then it goes to pay teachers, to pay healthcare workers, to pay first responders — and there’s a digital trail. 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, it would’ve been untraceable in a prior regime.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Megan Burney, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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