How this Webby Award-winning teen built a website to help Ukrainian refugees in three days

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Efficient design decisions brought the site, by Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein, to life fast. It already has over 1 million active users.

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Two years ago, when then-17 year old Avi Schiffmann developed a website to track the spread of COVID-19, he never thought it would gain popularity the way it did. But the site soon grabbed a lot of attention, including from NIH director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who presented him with a Webby Person of the Year award for the project in 2020. Now, Schiffman's launched another website that’s getting a lot of attention—and already making a real impact.

Looking for a way that he could support the people of Ukraine, 19 year old Schiffmann worked with co-developer and fellow Harvard Freshman Marco Burstein to design, develop, and launch Ukraine Take Shelter, a website that matches Ukrainian refugees with hosts that are offering places to stay in neighboring countries. And they did it all in three days. The breakneck pace of the project, and its success to date, are a reminder that while the internet has become synonymous with doomscrolling during times of crisis, the web can be used as a quick tool to create tangible good.

A photograph of Avi Schiffman and co-developer Marco Burstein in suits, outside at Harvard University.
Avi Schiffman with co-developer of Ukraine Take Shelter Marco Burstein. Image courtesy Avi Schiffmann.

The UN reported this week that Russia's war in Ukraine has forced 10 million people to flee their homes. That’s nearly a quarter of Ukraine's 43 million residents who have either been displaced inside the country, or as refugees abroad. Schiffmann and Bursteins’s site is one of several platforms responding to the growing refugee housing crisis. AirBnB has pledged to provide housing to 100,000 refugees through their site, and European NGOs like Takecarebnb, which provides temporary housing to anyone seeking asylum in the Netherlands.

Ukraine Take Shelter is a simple and effective concept. It's a public bulletin of housing options in neighboring countries where Ukrainiains can connect with hosts through an interface similar to AirBnB or VRBO. Design decisions prioritize functionality over bells and whistles. The dark blue homepage features a search bar in the center below simple calls to action like “Enter your location” or “Connect with hosts.” “It was important that the UI wasn't a confusing experience and that the site was efficient and intuitive to use,” Schiffmann says. “We didn't need to reinvent the wheel here; we wanted the website to function very similarly to what people are already familiar with navigating.”

Screenshots of the Ukraine Take Shelter website. Images courtesy Avi Schiffman.

Since no account sign up is necessary for those seeking housing, users can immediately type in the city closest to their current location or where they're traveling to and view a list of available housing options, with details about the type of accommodation in the description and contact info for the host via WhatsApp, Telegram or Viber links. They can filter results based on specific needs like transportation, legal assistance, or support for people with disabilities, for families with children, or even for those with pets. “Our main priority was to make it as secure and safe as possible, while at the same time, making sure it was simple to use and could scale to millions of people,” Schiffmann explains.

They did this in a few ways. Schiffmann and Burstein worked with user experience research teams to allow people in Ukraine to the test website and see if there were any pain points they found or features that needed improving. They modified some elements like adding new labels and filters and having the website translated into over a dozen languages by volunteer translators. They also made the layout extremely straight forward: It’s only two pages, with the search bar serving as the primary element on the homepage. “We wanted to make this process as few clicks as possible for people to get results,” Schiffmann explains.

The pair finished the build in under 72 hours, and the site has been rapidly growing since its launch. The Washington Post first reported on the site in early March and the story soon went viral. Within the last two weeks the site has gone from zero to 20,000 listings with over 1 million active users. While the majority of listings are from nearby countries like Hungary, Poland and Germany, there are hosts offering their homes from all over the world, including Australia, Israel and the US.

A close-up photo of Avi Schiffman at a podium on stage.
Image courtesy Avi Schiffman.

Messages from people using the website have also been popping up on Twitter. One user tweeted, “this platform works wonders. Someone is staying at my home for a short while, cooking borsjt.” Even the official Twitter account of Ukraine joined in, thanking Schiffmann for the project. But despite these acknowledgements, getting the word out initially was a challenge. “I literally just started going into random Facebook groups for people volunteering in places like Poland and Hungary and I’d message the admin to see if they'd be interested in sharing this tool we'd created,” Schiffmann says. “It really just snowballed from there.”

Going forward, their plan is to slightly modify the current site so it will function as more of an aggregation of listings from a variety of different sources—not just individuals with spare rooms or couches, but also international NGOs and other verified aid organizations. Schiffmann likens it to the way Kayak works for booking flights or hotels, and sees this as a way to streamline information for housing resources into one central database.

Schiffmann’s team has also developed a more comprehensive host verification process which now requires them to scan their passport, drivers license, or other government ID. When those items are verified as real, they're cross checked with facial recognition software to confirm that the ID matches. Schiffman says Ukraine take Shelter plans to partner with a larger organization to handle this process, though he didn't disclose which at the time of publishing.

“There have been so many amazing stories of refugees and hosts alike using this platform successfully,” says Schiffmann. “It’s still pretty wild to me that we’ve been able to create a simple website here in the United States, and have it translated into multiple languages and then used as a direct practical tool to help people find safety across the world.”