When two Harvard College freshmen — Avi Schiffmann ’25 and Marco Burstein ’25 — launched the UkraineTakeShelter website last month, their goal was to help Ukrainian refugees find safe haven as quickly as possible.
“Every single day that we didn’t have this website up, there were more people that could be not finding housing,” said Schiffmann, a web developer who previously created a popular Covid-19 tracking site. “We just really wanted to help as soon as possible.”
As war rages in Ukraine, Schiffman and Burstein’s website allows refugees fleeing the country to match with potential hosts in Europe for short-term and long-term stays.
The site quickly gained traction and garnered national media attention. Within a week, more than 4,000 people had offered up their homes to refugees through the website. According to a tweet from Schiffmann, the platform had over 1 million active users two weeks after the launch.
But soon after the platform’s debut, concerns over a lack of security measures — such as host and user verification and tracking — circulated online. Some experts criticized the website as a platform that could expose vulnerable refugees to human trafficking.
Bruce Schneier, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, said the website’s concept had significant oversights.
“It assumed basically goodwill on the part of everybody, and it’s sad because it’s a project that was done purely out of goodwill,” he said.
Schneier said the website and its shortcomings serve as “a lesson in the limits of tech solutionism.”
“They didn’t really understand the complexity of what they were doing,” Schneier said. “There were things that were subtle and important that they didn’t realize.”
Schiffmann wrote in an email on Wednesday that he and Burstein thoroughly “considered both the social and technical aspects” of developing the website.
In an interview last month, Schiffmann said he was aware of the website’s flaws when it first launched, citing speed as his primary concern during the development process. Since then, he said he has been working to improve the platform’s safety measures and has added an identity verification process for hosts that includes criminal and terrorist background checks, among other modifications.
Nathaniel A. Raymond, a lecturer of global affairs at Yale University who worked as a consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency, said he was primarily concerned that unsupervised minors would use the website.
“This function of connecting people to temporary housing when they are exiting a conflict zone is something that should not be done rapidly, lightly, and in an improvised way,” Raymond said. “It should be done in coordination with the lawful international authorities and the lawful national authorities to ensure that we don't have even one kid go missing.”
“That's why I'm being so hard here — one kid who ends up with a trafficker is too many,” Raymond added.
Burstein said in an interview last month that he and Schiffman originally did not include identity verification for website users to avoid requiring refugees to disclose personal information.
“We have heard from numerous aid organizations and numerous cybersecurity experts that it would be extremely detrimental to require refugees to upload personal information about themselves when they're trying to flee a dangerous situation,” he said.
However, in response to concerns about minors using the platform, the creators later implemented identity verification for the refugees, Schiffmann wrote in the statement on Wednesday.
Raymond also raised concerns about whether the platform is placing an undue burden on Eastern European authorities facilitating their own relief measures.
“How does it integrate with those efforts that are being done by sovereign governments, which are the main point of contact for international aid agencies?” Raymond asked.
Burstein said in the interview last month that he and Schiffmann are constantly incorporating feedback from professional agencies and critics.
“We're always listening to what aid organizations, and what people on the ground are telling us, and that's what's informing our strategy,” Burstein said.
Burstein said the ultimate goal of the platform is to be a tool for aid organizations.
“Our main goal is to get this into the hands of and working with — and we currently are working with — those larger organizations that are doing a lot of the work on the ground,” Burstein said.
—Staff writer Omar Abdel Haq can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Ashley R. Masci can be reached at email@example.com.