The fire at Colectiv, the tragedy that struck Romania in 2015, was harrowing, yet essentially predictable. This combination of disbelief and likelihood was in fact the reason it hit a nerve with so many. We were all acutely aware of Romania's lack of institutional capacity. We all knew or sensed its chronic vulnerability built over decades of lack of procedures, resources, expertise and ethics. And that is why, when the tragedy hit, so many of us felt not only shocked, but responsible. What followed was an unprecedented wave of civic resurgence.
Code for Romania was born out of that wave, channeling some of the shock and outcry into energy for change that gave birth to one of the largest and most productive civic technology organisations in the world. Hardcoded in our DNA from the beginning was an understanding of Romanian's systemic vulnerabilities, a deep sense of urgency and an overwhelming feeling of responsibility to try and prevent the next disaster, or at least be prepared to manage it better.
Preparing for the Storm
The next Colectiv came 5 years later in the form of a pandemic. It could not be prevented, not by us at least, but this time around Romania was in a better place to manage such a crisis, in no small part due to the CSOs born or reinvigorated after the Colectiv tragedy, Code for Romania included. For us, at Code for Romania, the pandemic was both the ultimate test and the type of event that we were built to handle. In more ways than one it was the event that we prepared for since our start.
First and foremost, we knew what to do. Up to 2020 we invested over 2 years in researching disaster management and relief and preparing our response for what seemed to be the most likely contender for the next disaster: the major earthquake that is still bound to hit Romania in the coming years. We knew very well what problems will occur and how they would manifest and we had over 20 digital solutions prototyped and tested waiting to be developed and deployed as soon as needed. Above all, we knew that whenever a disaster of this magnitude strikes technology will have to be part of the answer. We spent plenty of time on the ground with our colleagues at Codeando Mexico studying their community's response to the 2017 earthquake and with the Code for America hurricane-response teams. We knew what could go wrong and what needed to go well. We also knew full well how much disaster management and relief efforts in the 21st century rely on technology and the capacity of organisations like ours to deploy a strong and agile response. Most importantly, we had a plan and we knew what to do and how to act when the time comes.
Secondly, we not only understood Romania's institutional framework well, but we were able to build good institutional relations with the relevant public institutions. Due to our research and work on disaster relief management, we came to know and cooperated closely with the Romanian Department for Emergency Situations (DSU). In fact, in February 2020 we had just launched and handed over to the DSU two critical platforms developed by us with the support of the World Bank. We also had very good working relations with both the Romanian Government and the newly founded Authority for the Digitalization of Romania (ADR). Most importantly, we have had a standing framework partnership with the Romanian Government since 2018, a partnership that gave us both the venue and the legal framework to offer immediate assistance to the Romanian Government.
Thirdly, Code for Romania had full capacity in the beginning of 2020 to offer the level of support needed in a crisis situation. 2019 saw Code for Romania transform in record time from an almost entirely volunteer based organization with a community of 800 members into an effective and stable organization with 10 full time employees and 1200 volunteers. This was largely due to the institutional support of the Romanian-American Foundation that granted us the seed funding and guidance needed to build and reach this capacity, well before any other funders saw the opportunity and understood the need for our work.
On the 28th of February 2020 Romania recorded its first Covid-19 case. On the 8th of March the Romanian Government took the first official measure in response to the pandemic banning outdoor events of over 1000 participants.
On the 10th of March we decided to cease any other activity and implement our disaster management and relief plan by creating the Code for Romania Covid-19 Taskforce with the purpose of assisting the government and civil society in their pandemic response. On the 11th of March we submitted our assistance proposal to the Romanian Government. We offered to make a technical assistance team available to the Government 24/7 and deliver an ecosystem of 6 web applications that would ensure necessary access to oficial news bulletins and data, aid management, guidance for citizens in understanding the pandemic and finding necessary support, decongestion of public services through automation and combating fake news. All of these solutions had already been prototyped by us in preparation for the next major earthquake.
We were received by the Government the next day (12th of March) and our offer of support was accepted. Only 5 days later, on the 17th of March, the first solution, StiriOficiale.ro was live. Two others followed in the same week and within a month the entire ecosystem was up and running. Solutions that would otherwise take many months to deliver were deployed within days and weeks, fully tested and debugged, thanks to Code for Romania's foresight and planning. Over 11 million people living in Romania have since then directly used the ecosystem built by us, which equates to over two thirds of the adult population. Besides delivering this ecosystem, Code for Romania has independently managed 5 of the 6 apps so as to not put any further pressure on public institutions. Most importantly, our team was fully emerged for over two months in directly assisting some of Romania's key institutions like the Government, the Ministry of Health and the DSU with technical know-how and support through the hardest period of the pandemic.
Looking back, Code for Romania filled a void that nobody else could. Romania had neither the digital infrastructure vital in dealing with a pandemic already built, nor the capacity to build it or the time to go through the lengthy public procurement process necessary for buying these solutions on the market. Only a self managed and self funded non-profit entity, agile and knowledgeable enough could deliver the solutions and assistance needed. Romania was uniquely lucky to have Code for Romania. Most other countries that shared Romania's vulnerabilities did not. It is hard to imagine what would have happened without Code for Romania's intervention, but it is good we did not need to find out.
Steering the Ship
No matter how equipped you are, nothing can fully prepare an individual or an organisation for a frontline intervention in an unprecedented crisis. My previous career as a humanitarian lawyer and researcher took me to countless war and conflict zones, from Somalia to Nagorno-Karabakh. I was accustomed to risk and danger, I knew full well what trauma is and understood the value of planning, communication and a clear head in such a situation. Yet as a researcher, you have the luxury of sidelines. You are never on the frontline and you never have the responsibility of a community behind you.
It is hard to put into words the experience of steering a community of almost 2000 people through the storm of such a crisis while ensuring its productivity and resilience. Code for Romania was built as a horizontal, yet structured organization and that was essential to us being as functional as we were in 2020. Constant communication between me, the rest of the executive team and each and every one of the volunteers, complete transparency and emotional support were key to ensuring the resilience of our team and community. This is how we managed to deliver without any instance of internal conflict and with limited burnout.
Much harder was to manage the noise of external factors. All of Romania's vulnerabilities were magnified in this crisis. We knew full well the extent of Romania's lack of institutional capacity, its overly bureaucratic DNA, its lack of functional flows, know-how and coordination and the narrow self-interest of many of those in public service. Adding to this, very few of those in positions of power were prepared to work under extremely stressful conditions. Nothing was new, but with lives at stake all these factors cut much deeper. The added stress of witnessing all these blockages first-hand from the frontlines, day after day is hard to describe. Through it all, our strategy was to keep the eye on the target, to always be constructive and stay in the room where we were needed in spite of any external factors, until the end.
After the storm
The Covid-19 trained and tested Code for Romania's capacity to deliver under the hardest circumstances possible. Even though migrating back to work as usual was not easy, we came out of this experience with a much stronger community and added self confidence. The crisis has also exposed the stringent need for digitalisation done right and for growing governmental capacity on the topic. In other words, the perceived need for Code for Romania has grown exponentially and so did the public pressure on us to accelerate our work and grow our footprint. The good news is that the public trust and recognition that Code for Romania has gained along the way has already started translating into more capacity and a larger impact. But the most important silver lining is that the crisis forced nonprofits and public institutions to cooperate at a scale they never did before in Romania's history. Both Government and CSOs are in the public service and have a shared responsibility to build on the newly found bridges. Romania does not have the luxury of wasting resources and opportunities. The next storm is always around the corner. We should be already preparing and building for it.