Before we carried stickers saying "We are the ones we've been waiting for"on our laptops and planners, we were just a handful of people who didn't want to wait anymore. In November 2015, after the Colectiv tragedy, the feeling of urgency and the need to do something was being felt by all Romanians, including four friends gathered in an apartment in Rotterdam to discuss an idea.
Bogdan Ivănel, the one who lit the spark, is no expert in technology, but a doctor in international law (Science Po, Paris, France), after an academic path that includes BA & LLM Utrecht University, MSc Oxford University and Visiting Scholar UC Berkeley . He did not make a single app by November 2015, having instead spent a decade directly observing and analyzing social phenomena in the field of human rights and humanitarian law, with a strong focus on communities with social and economic problems. He had trained to look not for revolutions, but for intelligent solutions that would make systems work. For citizens, justice comes safest and most lasting in the polling station. As many Romanians in the diaspora had not been able to vote in the previous round of elections, the question came almost naturally: "what if we made an app?"
To make an app, however, coding is not enough. User experience design - building an optimal user experience - is essential. That's what Olivia Vereha told Bogdan when they first met. Fortunately, in Olivia, the team had already found its UX design specialist.
Many of us remember the strong feeling of helplessness at the end of 2015 - in the face of a defective and opaque system. It only took a handful of people with a good idea to turn helplessness into what would become an almost incredible example of the enthusiasm of hundreds willing to sacrifice hours, days, nights of their time writing code. And not just for themselves - there's a reason why the organization is called Code for Romania.
The first projects
The first thing the organization had to do was build the mechanisms by which it could work to bring about change. With a booming IT industry, the gap between the commercial and non-profit sectors had become larger, which meant that, in Romania, there was no civic technology infrastructure, NGOs and public institutions often lacking the capacity to correctly estimate their needs and to design digital solutions. Vot Diaspora was the first Code for Romania project - a platform through which Romanians abroad could receive quick and clear information about where and how they can vote. Hundreds of thousands of Romanians living abroad used it, and in a few days, hundreds of volunteers already wanted to join the initiative. It was the first time that Code for Romania proved that we can change the way things are done. In a short time, it had already become the second largest civic technology organization in the world. Within two years of its founding, Code for Romania had also changed the way elections are monitored in Romania. Poll watchers now had the “Vote Monitor” app installed on their phones - and poll watching was no longer a pen on paper affair, with the information transmitted in real time. The hunger to change things for the better was growing. After the elections, Code for Romania started to build an ecosystem to help civil society, offering it the digital tools through which it can fulfil its mission more efficiently. Soon, in the largest cities in the country (Iasi, Cluj-Napoca, Timisoara, Bucharest), communities of volunteers popped up, meeting monthly to write code for the apps that would change the world. The Code for Romania community is nonetheless much larger than these communities and over 15% of our volunteers live abroad. In 2018, the global Code for All summit took place in Bucharest, attended by over 200 technology specialists from over 50 countries. Romania had also become a global example - in Poland a version of the Vote Monitor application was used to observe the elections, and two years later, Code for Moldova was also established.
Task force: Covid-19
On March 11, 2020, the coronavirus pandemic had become a palpable and frightening reality in Romania. Within three days, our volunteers, now united under the Task Force umbrella, had already launched the first platform designed to help the general public by providing reliable information when it was most needed. Within a few weeks, six apps were parts of an entire anti-COVID ecosystem. Through collaboration with the authorities, who provided the official information, Code for Romania had launched an ecosystem that served over 10 million Romanians. Over 420 volunteers contributed to the entire program, devoting an average of 80 hours each, depending on their availability. In addition to the 6 solutions, Code for Romania consulted for key institutions of the government sector (Ministry of Health, DSU, ADR, etc.). We also debuted our Civic Tech 911 program, through which Code for Romania provides technical assistance to civil society, helping dozens of NGOs at a time when they needed support.
The next 5 years
In the first four years of its existence, the equivalent of a Romanian MP’s term in office, Code for Romania coagulated a community of almost 2000 volunteers who contributed approximately 365,000 work hours for Romania. An organization with a small budget brought to Romanian society an estimated value of over 14 million euros through the contributions of its community. We have designed over 120 digital solutions, of which 21 are live and 12 in development. In 4 years, a handful of people with an idea have turned into a phenomenon - a strong, motivated and competent community that produces change. For the next few years, Code for Romania plans to build a real digital infrastructure for Romania, in five major areas: Education, Health, Environment, Vulnerable Groups and Civic Participation. It is an ambitious and exciting plan that can change Romania for the better. And we already know that it can become reality. Together, we can make it real.