Ideas that start with a new piece of technology are often gimmicky and superficial compared to ideas that find the medium to suit the goals. But when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, one piece of technology suddenly seemed to find its most noble purpose.
Creative director Tao Thomsen recalls the realisation the team he works with at Virtue (the agency powered by VICE) had when they discovered Polycam – an app that allows anyone with a newer smartphone or tablet to completely capture objects or even rooms as 3D models. “Initially, we were blown away by how far the capabilities have come,” says Tao. “The machine learning that powers the software is able to do things on any random person's phone that would have taken a full movie studio, five trained professionals, half a million pounds worth of equipment and five days to do. You can do something that's very close to that level in five minutes.”
Heartbroken by the scenes of war they were seeing in Ukraine, the Virtue team thought there must be something this technology can do to preserve the country while it is under attack, digitally scanning and storing models of important objects and places that are under threat of destruction. “We kicked the thought around a little bit,” says Tao, but when they spoke to people in their network from Ukraine the reply was: “‘Unless it gives us ammunition or gets people out of the country, don't bother.’"
That seemed fair enough. But a few days later Morten Grubak, global ECD, innovation at Virtue heard what Tao calls “this very brainy morning radio programme” featuring an interview with the chair of Blue Shield Denmark – an organisation that focuses on preserving cultural artefacts in catastrophe-stricken places. He said "destroying a country's cultural heritage is the fastest way to erase their national identity."
“That, for us, really made it click,” says Tao. “This isn't a service to museums; this is actually part of protecting the national spirit of the country from being wilfully targeted.”
Everywhere the Virtue team looked they started seeing more and more reports of a level of cultural destruction that appears suspiciously deliberate – a suspicion that has been considered by expert observers since. [https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/06/10/is-ukraines-cultural-heritage-under-coordinated-attack]
They started asking, firstly, whether there could be a targeted Russian attempt at erasing Ukraine's culture and, secondly, as Tao asks, “Is this thing we stumbled upon really the solution to that?” Virtue took that thought back to partners both in Ukraine and in international heritage organisations, as well as to Polycam. “That really changed the conversation from, ‘maybe not right now’ to ‘how fast can we get this off the ground?’”
Making it work
For Polycam to be used to its full LiDAR scanning and photogrammetry capacity, each individual needs a licence that’s currently around $55 a year. Virtue didn't know if Polycom wanted to be associated with the project, so asked if they could spare 20 free licences to give people in Ukraine. “After we pitched them the idea, they said after 10 minutes they would make it free for everyone in the entire country,” says Morten. “That was the first point when we realised this is achievable. Now everyone in Ukraine can have this app in their pockets.”
Storage of all the captured objects was also a consideration – soon solved by Polycam giving everyone in Ukraine unlimited cloud space too. The company also committed to do a hard drive backup every day to make sure that all data is stored off the cloud, securely.
The next obstacle was that the app was only for iOS and Polycam didn't have an Android version at that point. Morten recalls that conversation: “So we asked them kindly, ‘is it possible to turn your entire app into an Android version like really, really quickly?’ That's a lot of work, but they kindly invested around two weeks of hardcore engineering into turning it into an Android version of the app.”
Polycam couldn’t demand that of its employees, but asked for volunteers. “I think they just all got fired up about it and sat down the entire team,” says Tao, “and ended up turning it around in something like 14 days. I don't know a lot about that kind of porting, but that sounds very, very fast.”
Adding credibility and expertise
“It was important for us that we didn't come across as trying to sell an app during wartime,” says Morten. “So we knew we had to give some critical partners on board.” That's when the team reached out to UNESCO and Blue Shield Denmark, who they’d worked with in the past on several projects.
Like in their pitch to Polycam, Virtue’s pitch to the NGOs was met with the enthusiasm of people who want to do anything they can to curb the horrors of the war. After a short call, both agreed, but noted that they would need signoff from the highest authorities, including the entire national commission of UNESCO.
Luckily, the commission had an emergency meeting in just a few days, in response to Russia's invasion. “We got 10 minutes there and went in with a meticulously well prepared presentation for them,” says Tao. “And it's a Zoom thing, of course, so you can't really read people. I turn off my microphone. I’m waiting, breath held and they all just literally get out of their chairs and start clapping.”
“We had everything lined up,” says Tao. They went live on the same evening. “Everything was a rush against time. Every week we heard new reports of destruction and we knew that getting the paperwork signed, getting the lawyers to review stuff [would take time] – if that had taken a week that could have been 100 more things lost forever, before we had a chance to scan them. The stars really aligned and allowed us to deploy with such speed. We did everything on our part to press on and have all the launch material and technology ready. We also knew that it could be a yes in 14 days, but it was a yes in 10 minutes.”
There was a huge security component to the app development, which was one of the reasons why it was so important to partner up with Blue Shield, who has a lot of hands-on experience working with museums that are under severe adversarial conditions. “They know exactly what kind of considerations go through these people's minds. And security was a big part of it,” says Tao. “So we did have to adapt and change some settings. These museums will never, ever reveal the location of their hidden inventory. That's like the number-one rule for museum workers, which we quickly found out. But they still needed a way to mark these as having a location in Ukraine. So we had to ask Polycam to tinker quite a bit with the backend to do things like scrambling geolocation, for example, so you know what city it's in, but publicly, it doesn't reveal the location within like a five-mile radius. Or in some cases, save the exact location of something, but then hide it to the public. So there were a lot of security considerations that needed to be built in order for us to earn the trust of cultural institutions in Ukraine and prove to them that we understand their way of thinking and working and that they could entrust this data with us without giving basically a treasure map to looters.”
Once more, Polycam’s team worked incredibly fast, adjusted on the go and modified the backend to accommodate those wishes. And so far, Tao says they have not heard of a single security breach.
Putting the tool in Ukrainians’ hands
Then came the really hard part – getting Ukrainians to use this tool and start backing up Ukraine. “The global press story was a lot easier to get rolling than the local one,” says Morten. “Mostly we just relied on word of mouth and network connections.” Calling in favours and making introductions to people who could make introductions to the right people, they slowly got to the gatekeepers of the right communities who could get the word out in Ukraine.
Slowly the message travelled through influential social accounts and with assistance from people like Ukrainian digital fashion startup DRESSX, who Virtue had worked with before, sharing Backup Ukraine on its platforms. “We basically reached out to all the contacts we had before this project that we knew in Ukraine and asked them to help us push it,” says Morten. “We didn't want it to be pushed as a campaign but more like a tool. That's the reason why the video that has been circulating of how it works is pretty cheaply done on my iPhone and voiced in Ukrainian by people who work at Vice. Everything was supposed to be genuine and not trying to push a beautiful campaign. That was really important.”
The more people they brought into the loop, the more organisations for cultural preservation came on board, from museums to local architectural firms in Ukraine to big global heritage organisations. “Every week we have new contacts reaching out,” says Tao, “from somebody trying to build a new curriculum for heritage workers in Europe to even some pretty closed-doors, high-level political stuff.”
There’s still work to be done in recruiting volunteers. But that cause was helped by the project winning 10 Cannes Lions in June, including the Digital Craft Grand Prix. “The best award that we achieved in Cannes was actually all the people from Ukraine there at the award shows that came up afterwards and linked up with us,” says Morten. “Our contact book exploded after Cannes. We got to meet so many great people doing various projects in Ukraine. It was nice meeting so many creatives from Ukraine who wanted to know more about the project and get involved.”
After the festival, there was a large uptick in local downloads. “Our assumption is that that comes from people who are credible within culture and creativity in Ukraine seeing it through the exposure in Cannes and then sharing it to their networks,” says Tao.
Where it is now
Backup Ukraine was created by Virtue, a creative agency. But it’s important for Tao and Morten that this isn’t viewed as a campaign. “It's a question of people seeing this as a civilian initiative and not a branding initiative,” says Tao. “And I think that's been the key to our volunteers being as dedicated as they are. Every day we continue to be blown away by the level of dedication that people put into this. We're not asking them to retweet, or change their profile picture in support of something.
“We're asking people to go outside in a country that is in a full-blown war and venture out of their homes. And even though there's a tonne of safety precautions, they go out and there is an element of risk. We're seeing people literally sharing cars within the volunteer network and going on expeditions to places where the Russians have just retreated from, where there are still mines, to capture important monuments. I think that level of dedication, you can't get that if you start with showing people an ad.”
In fact, the civilian aspect is more dominant than what museums are doing right now with the app. At the start of the war, most museums quickly spirited their artefacts to safety. But there are thousands of people on the ground scanning what they can. Some are even going to cultural institutions and schools within Ukraine, presenting the opportunity of Backup Ukraine to them. Tao mentions one man who does two or three visits a week like this and is “met with such a beautiful, really grateful reception.” Volunteers are visiting universities, recruiting history students and teaching them the tool and building more of an ad-hoc body of volunteers. “But the majority of our scans are still just volunteers who, without any specific background except maybe an interest in architecture or digital design or 3D modelling, go out and do this pretty much on their own.”
To date around 7,000 people across Ukraine have downloaded the app. By mid June, it had captured more statues alone than MOMA has collected since 1993. As well as objects they want to preserve, people have been using the app to document the destruction wrought by the Russian offensive.
Beyond that, the app has been used to capture objects that the team at Virtue hadn’t foreseen, like their personal belongings, the inside of their homes or their favourite bench. One young boy even stored all of their LEGO collection on the app. Tao found it incredibly moving. “This might be a kid who's about to be separated from all of his life, shipped off to Poland or something. This might be their way of documenting that life. Having that opportunity to capture not just the capital-H History, but the actual lived experience of people in a war is a tremendously strong opportunity that we hadn't even foreseen when we started.”
Of course Virtue is proud of what it’s made possible by putting this tool in people’s hands, but it speaks to a broader direction of travel in the creative world. “These technologies that interweave with the world give us such huge creative potential to go and do stuff that's closer to reality than our industry has ever been before,” says Tao. “Historically, we've been all mouth, no hands. We've been able to make these beautiful pieces that tell people what change they should make. But I think with a lot of these new tools that bridge this gap. There's an opportunity to go in and change the world directly. There's no intermediate intermediary. We are the intermediary, so to speak. So in this process we see ourselves a little bit more as facilitators than communicators. We think more about the tool than the message. That's definitely a lens that we view the world through, when it comes to purpose and impact work. It's not just talking about it, but figuring out a way that technology can help us impact it directly. And I don't think this is just us. I think this is going to be a huge part of the industry defining creativity that we will see in the next couple of years.”
That’s a broad idea to park for now though, because as Morten stresses, the most important thing is that the war is still on. “We have big dreams about where this project will end afterwards, but it feels a little bit harsh to kickstart that part of the process before everything has ended in some way,” he says. “And of course, one thing is to ‘Backup Ukraine’, but the other thing is to build up Ukraine. We are scanning, capturing and saving all this stuff, so it should be rebuilt at some point.”