TUESDAY 21 NOV 2023 11:40 AM


Sigma Software Group describes the creative and strategic process behind the launch of its Swedes for Ukraine platform.

For almost a month, the basement of the building in the Primorsky district of Mariupol became a home for Julia and her children in March 2022. They stayed there day and night – it was impossible to go outside because the Russian shelling did not stop for a second. Julia says her children still remember the smell of blood in the basement air, full of wounded people.

Now they are safe and living in a small apartment in Linköping, which they found through the Swedes for Ukraine platform. Julia and her kids are among the eight million Ukrainian refugees registered for temporary protection in Europe.

Sweden, which has a long-standing and memorable relationship with Ukraine, was among the countries that welcomed tens of thousands of Ukrainian people. Swedes for Ukraine united 3,000 refugees and hosts, and hundreds of families found a shelter through the platform built in just a month.

What is the Swedes for Ukraine?

The idea behind this platform is simple. It matches Ukrainian refugees with Swedes who wish to host them. ​​It makes it easy for Swedes with rooms or houses to contact refugee families directly. They can publish their accommodation without disclosing their name and address using BankID. Refugee families can also introduce themselves on the site. After that, potential hosts can contact refugees and vice versa.

The process typically involves an initial contact via phone or email and an in-person meeting between the parties. The refugee family can stay longer if both feel good about the match. The website is available in Ukrainian, Swedish, and English.

The initiators of this service are the entrepreneurs Ebba Lindsö, Alf Svensson, Dan Olofsson, and Valery Kraskovsky. Swedes for Ukraine has been developed in record time by Ukrainian engineers at the Swedish-owned IT company Sigma Software – engineers who have chosen to stay in western Ukraine but wanted to help fellow compatriots who fled. Here’s how they made it.

No time to sleep

At the end of February 2022, Dmytro Kapustianskyi, vice president at Sigma Software, was evacuating his family from Kharkiv to the West of Ukraine. Almost immediately after leaving, he was approached by Dan Olofsson, the founder of the Danir Group, which owns the entire Sigma Group.

He said: "Dmytro, though I recognize that you are a refugee yourself and currently on the move, time is of the essence, and we must act fast. Please assemble a team, and let’s develop a website that will help refugees from Ukraine find new homes in Sweden."

A few days after Dmytro reached a secure location in the Western part of Ukraine, he and Dan got to work on the website's concept. They had limited time, and the process was erratic, with many unforeseen issues. We had to form a team on the go lacking functional and non-functional requirements, which they had to create on the fly. Dan, Dmytro, who became a project manager of this initiative, and Sigma Software's art director Artem Kostenko spent the entire weekend working on a detailed design prototype, nailing the main requirements.

It turned out that they could not discover an ideal solution right away. The Ukrainians approached the concept from the refugees' standpoint, whereas Dan viewed it from the hosting country's perspective. They dedicated a few more days to locating the optimal solution that would meet the usability requirements of both parties. Finally, they had the much-needed requirements after five long days and nights.

However, the outcome may differ significantly from the initial vision when working on a project and designing its future look and usability. That was the case with the Swedes for Ukraine.

“Originally, it looked and sounded easy. Just visit the website, register, and find a new home. But over time, we’ve faced numerous hurdles”, says Kapustianskyi.

How to safeguard Swedes from potential robbery? And how to ensure that the personal data shared by Ukrainian refugees will stay in the right hands? How to address language barriers? How to attract hundreds of hosts to use a website they have never heard of before? Lastly, how to establish proper regulations to govern all these aspects?

Security and personal data

To ensure the security and legitimacy of the platform, the Swedes for Ukraine team implemented a registration process via BankID, which helps to weed out scammers and ensure that only real people can use the platform. This was a challenging task, as usually, it takes at least two months for any organisation in Sweden to introduce BankID. However, thanks to the team's efforts and connections with influential people like Dan Olofsson, they accomplished this in just four weeks. “With BankID, we immediately cut off some of the fraudsters who might have wanted to do any harm,” tells Dmytro.

Once a user is registered, they can view families needing assistance and directly contact them. Similarly, landlords can view potential tenants once they have registered. Communication between refugees and landlords takes place via private email, and a standardised contract created by the Danir Group's legal team can be used to formalise their agreement. This contract is a recommended framework for regulating their relationship, which the parties may modify to suit their individual requirements.

Of course, misunderstandings might occur in any interpersonal relationship. However, thus far, no conflicts have been reported, and the standardised contract has helped to simplify initiating and maintaining these relationships. The Swedes for Ukraine team has implemented effective measures to ensure their platform's security and personal data privacy.

Host's engagement and how to find common ground

Alongside BankID implementation and other technical needs, the creators have had to ensure the flow of Swedes who will begin registering their homes. Where will the houses for refugees to move in come from?

To begin with, Dan Olofsson announced the Sigma Group, offering an opportunity for anyone interested in sheltering the refugees. It worked – a lot of people from the Group joined the initiative. In addition, a marketing campaign was launched, providing good media coverage: dozens of publications in many local newspapers, TV appearances, and so on.

Language barriers emerged as a natural problem along the way. With Swedes largely unable to speak Ukrainian and Ukrainians not fluent in Swedish, nor often in English, it became apparent that a separate volunteering initiative was needed to address this and other issues.

Volunteers can assist refugee families with needs beyond just housing within the Swedes for Ukraine platform. This includes liaising with authorities, sports clubs, trade unions, churches, hospitals, etc. They can also assist with job searches, help address any concerns the refugee family faces, and provide translation services. 

Kapustianskyi remarks, "I held meetings with several social services, and we found that between 3,500 and 5,000 Swedish volunteers were willing and able to help – particularly with communication challenges."

The launch and interim results

Sigma Software and Danir teams built a Swedes for Ukraine website in a month. When the website started, they had many houses available for refugees. The main point remained the initial contact.

“There was a big wave at the start. We had many registered users looking for accommodation and Swedes who wanted to help. Today, there are about 3,000 unique registrations: 2,000 are refugees, and 1,000 are hosts and volunteers,” says Dan Olofsson.

With time, the wave naturally subsided, the initial contacts took place, and often, one contact turned out into a kind of networking on the spot by word of mouth. A lot of communication and arrangement activities happen offline, and creators of Swedes for Ukraine don’t have any control over them.

“We’ve achieved our main goal. We’ve helped people find accommodation in a foreign country, often in situations with limited communication abilities. While the site was crucial during its launch in the spring of 2022, its significance has since diminished. It no longer serves as a critical tool for refugees as it did a year ago," says Dmytro. 

Dmytro says there have been many hacker attacks throughout the year, trying to break the platform. The most massive one was at the end of February 2023. 

“From the end of February to the beginning of March, they were actively trying to hack us from Russia. They used completely different registration attempts. Hundreds of new users came in daily, and then we had to look for the window from where they were coming. We managed to shut it down, and now everything is fine.”

A catholic family from Örebro, Bengt and his wife have never hosted people from other countries. Still, after the war started, they decided to do something to help Ukraine immediately. Bengt registered on Swedes for Ukraine, where he found a Ukrainian family – Tatyana and her son Timur. Now they live downstairs in Bengt’s house, in the renovated and furnished part with a separate entrance.

Bengt says he and his wife are glad to have a Ukrainian family living with them. 

“Even though it is a tiny contribution from our side, not at all compared to the sacrifices the Ukrainians are showing the world at this moment, we are happy to help. And I want to underline that we do this with humility and are not the heroes here. The Ukrainians are.”