Crisis and Connectivity in Ukraine

How Intel Corporation and The N50 Project Are Using Digital Solutions for Good

Early on the morning of February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. David Hartshorn watched the crisis unfold from half a world away in Washington D.C. He watched as each day, Russian forces pushed deeper into Ukraine, sending countless Ukrainians fleeing for safety from the onslaught.

Within weeks, the invasion had triggered the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Some 10 million Ukrainians, nearly a quarter of the country’s population, had left their homes. Over 3 million became refugees, massing at the borders of neighboring countries. 90% of them were women and children with a need to contact their loved ones back home and no way to get the information they needed to find work, shelter, or safety in their new surroundings. Hartshorn knew he needed to help, but he wasn’t sure how.

As CEO of Geeks Without Frontiers, a global non-profit humanitarian organization, Hartshorn knew how to make a difference when people were in dire conditions. Under his leadership, Geeks Without Frontiers used technology to connect people when they needed it most, whether they were stranded in disaster areas or isolated on fishing vessels in the middle of our planet’s oceans.

Intel called us. And they said, ‘We’ve got to do something here.’
David Hartshorn, CEO, Geeks Without Frontiers

Hartshorn’s team was scrambling to organize their response when they received a call from a longstanding partner. “Intel called us. And they said, ‘We’ve got to do something here,’” Hartshorn says. The question was how? “At that point, we had no resources to support refugees in the region. No money, no equipment, no identified partners.” What they did have was a new collaborative venture called The N50 Project, tasked with leveraging the expertise of Intel, Geeks Without Frontiers, and other industry leaders.

Less than five weeks later, their will to help found a way: the first Portable Connectivity Center, a fully-kitted out shipping container offering connection and comfort to displaced Ukrainians, was delivered to a refugee center in Bucharest, Romania.

This is the story of how it all came together.

(Left) Ukrainian children create art on laptops inside the PCC at RomExpo In Bucharest, Romania as part of World Vision’s Happy Bubbles program. (Right) Joe Simmons, Geeks Without Frontiers and Mykolay Latushkin, Help Ukrainians, unpack a 50-inch monitor to support community center broadcasts and education. (Bogdan Dinca for CORE/Geeks Without Frontiers/World Vision)
(Left) Ukrainian children create art on laptops inside the PCC at RomExpo In Bucharest, Romania as part of World Vision’s Happy Bubbles program. (Right) Joe Simmons, Geeks Without Frontiers and Mykolay Latushkin, Help Ukrainians, unpack a 50-inch monitor to support community center broadcasts and education. (Bogdan Dinca for CORE/Geeks Without Frontiers/World Vision)

A Ray of Light in the Darkness

Intel’s Daniel Gutwein was no stranger to bringing digital solutions to hard-to-reach places. As head of Intel’s education vertical, he’s spearheaded projects across the globe, from teaching digital literacy in the heart of America’s largest cities to bringing a computer lab with robust educational resources to remote Zambia. “At Intel,” Gutwein says, “our purpose is to create world-changing technology that improves the lives of every person on the planet. For me, for my colleagues, those aren’t just words on paper.”

But despite past successes, Gutwein’s work showed him that bigger challenges lay ahead. “Half of the world’s population, 3.9 billion people, still don’t access the digital world,” Gutwein says, “but if you look at the data, between 3.4 billion and 3.5 billion of those people actually have access to at least a 3G or greater network.”

Gutwein and his team discovered that there were three major barriers to digital adoption: 1. digital literacy; 2. understanding applications—that is, the ways digital solutions can help; and 3. cost. His work also led him to another key piece of knowledge: Collaboration was the key to bringing down those barriers quickly and effectively.

One company can’t solve this problem. Money can’t solve this problem. We said, ‘Hey, let’s open source this and see if people want to partner with us to solve the problem of digital adoption.’
Daniel Gutwein, Senior Director, Education and N50 Project, Intel

That’s why Intel helped create The N50 Project, a cross-industry collaboration tasked with enabling the next 50% of the global population to participate in the digital world. Today, the N50 Project counts approximately 100 total member companies, with Geeks Without Frontiers acting as the project’s program management office. “We currently have more than 40 projects in the pipeline globally,” Gutwein says, “with the potential to impact around a quarter of a million people.”

But in February 2022, N50 was only just getting off the ground. Even so, Hartshorn and Gutwein realized that N50 might be able to leverage the strengths and expertise of its member organizations—and its collaborative model—to provide communications and to help Ukrainians in dire need. “The real story,” Gutwein says, “is… how quickly we started working together under a common goal of providing communications and information and power to a dispersed group of people.”

N50 had decided to act – but what would that action look like? With the help of more than a dozen N50 partner organizations, the solution began to take shape immediately. One of the partners that was instrumental in building, integrating, and deploying the PCCs was Computer Aid International, a non-profit organization that uses computers and other ICT equipment to improve lives and specialize in deploying Dell Solar Community Hubs as computer centers in remote locations.

The coalition coordinated with a group of some 50 non-government aid organizations to figure out what Ukrainian refugees needed most. The country’s IT infrastructure is well-developed, and Ukrainians are used to a high level of internet connectivity. They needed digital solutions that would allow them to communicate with family and friends back in Ukraine and access information that would allow adults to search for jobs and children to continue their education. Furthermore, they learned that refugees desperately needed education and accurate information about human traffickers who were using the crisis to prey on the most vulnerable.

The solution that delivered these needs would have to be portable, modular, easy-to-power, and able to connect large numbers of refugees to digital resources. Ultimately, N50 designed a solution that would become known as the Portable Connectivity Center (PCC), a modular shipping container that included everything refugees might require to access the digital tools and solutions they needed most But whether the team could build such a container — or how quickly — was another matter entirely.

When Gutwein reached out to the Intel Foundation for support, the Foundation’s president, Pia Wilson-Body, asked him a simple question: how quickly do you think you can get this done? “Eight to twelve weeks minimum,” Gutwein responded. “That’s too long,” she said. “Can you do it in four weeks?” “That’s impossible, Gutwein said, “but why don’t we try?”

Now that the PCC had been designed, the next big hurdle was getting it built. And once again, N50 team members rose to the occasion. “We asked ourselves, ‘where do we build these things?’ We got on the phone with one of our partners, WWT, and within 24 hours we were introduced to Exclusive Networks and gained access to their 10,000 square foot warehouse in Krakow, Poland. Exclusive Networks had employees who were eager to help. “Many of them had already brought Ukrainian refugees home,” Hartshorn recalls, “to live under their own roofs. They were walking the walk.” One day, early on, an employee approached David and his team and shook their hands, and promised he would do whatever it took to get the PCCs built on time. He was Ukrainian, and had been working in Poland since before the invasion. “He was emotionally gripped,” Hartshorn says. “We met many, many people like that.”

Once the first PCC was built, N50 partner World Vision helped secure a place to deploy it at the RomExpo refugee center in Bucharest, Romania; other partners helped secure the truck to transport the PCC and the paperwork necessary to move it across borders.

We delivered our first containers in four weeks and two days. It’s something that one company, one individual, could never do on their own.
Daniel Gutwein Senior Director, Education and N50 Project, Intel

Opening Containers, Finding Hope

David Hartshorn was there in Romania to watch the first PCC be deployed. “We had a truck with a crane dropping a 20 foot container into downtown Bucharest, Romania, that was fully kitted out,” Hartshorn recalls, “with solar power, and the ability to connect into the primary electrical grid; wireless communication services donated by the Vodafone Foundation, with satellite waiting in the wings, if necessary, to reestablish connectivity for these women and children. Wherever they were”.

He watched beleaguered refugees use Dell ruggedized laptops in the PCC to communicate in their native language, to find food and shelter and work. He saw the relief wash over people as they re-established contact with their families who were still in the line of fire or scattered to the far corners of Europe. He watched their children find comfort in video games on laptops provided by the PCC. He saw people reconnecting not just with technology in abstract, but with some form of life as they’d been accustomed to living it.

In the months since that day, an estimated 46,500 refugees have accessed the RomExpo in Bucharest, where the first PCC was deployed. In the weeks that followed N50 Partners CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort) with N50 Project Director Joe Simmons, identified more high-impact locations for PCCs to be positioned in Poland and Romania, where refugees congregated in need of support.

To date, 7 total PCCs are operational, with additional units scheduled for deployment. Now, as the war enters a new phase, and millions of Ukrainians return home, Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation and the humanitarian group CORE have expressed interest in having N50 deploy their PCCs in a new way, within Ukraine, in order to perform e-government applications in areas devastated by the Russian invasion.

Looking to the Horizon

Even as the situation in Ukraine changes and the use cases for the PCCs evolve, Hartshorn still looks back on the first PCC deployment at RomExpo. His colleague Dr. Tanya Murphy, Geeks Without Frontiers’ Director of Impact, was tasked with understanding just how the PCC could impact the work of NGOs working to serve refugees. Murphy and Hartshorn were standing outside the PCC, watching children draw and paint using tablets and smartphones provided by the center. It was all part of Happy Bubbles, a program designed to allow children to create and print art and help them feel comfortable and safe while they’re far from home.

Murphy asked Florentina Dan, a field officer for the Happy Bubbles activities with the nonprofit World Vision, “What is the value of the PCC for the Happy Bubbles program? What are the outcomes?”

“Access to information is critical for these people,” Dan told them. “It’s like breathing oxygen. Most of Ukraine is extremely well-connected. And we have seen again and again people tell us—grandmothers, mothers, children—how wonderful it is to be able to express themselves through art.”

As Hartshorn and Murphy listened to Dan, a little girl came up to Dan’s side, a little girl who hadn’t been participating, and started to dance. Overcome, Hartshorn turned to his colleague and said, “I think we’ve got a good impact here, Tanya,” Looking back now, he adds “As these units continue to be deployed, our entire N50 team takes heart in the transformational power of partnership.”

Alejandro Espinosa Llano (top) and Alejandra Collazos Reina (below) of Computer Aid install PCC internet service for CORE’s local partner, Help Ukrainians, in Galati, Romania. (Bogdan Dinca/CORE)
Staff from Geeks Without Frontiers, Computer Aid, and World Vision arrive in the early morning to begin setting up the first Portable Connectivity Center (PCC) at RomExpo in Bucharest, Romania. (Geeks Without Frontiers/World Vision)
The team outfits the PCC in Bucharest. (Geeks Without Frontiers/World Vision)
Local Galati community Intel volunteers set up, configure, and connect ruggedized laptops to be used for education and a variety of digital programs. (Bogdan Dinca/CORE)
At the request of Mykolay Latushkin of Help Ukrainians, the Ukraine national flag is mounted on the PCC. (Bogdan Dinca/CORE)




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