New Wave of Civil Tech in Romania Inspires Neighboring Moldova

February 10, 2021
Natalie Himmel
7 min read
Photo credit: Code4Romania
One of the most important goals the Black Sea Trust is committed to fostering in the region is cooperation and best practice exchanges among the countries of the Black Sea basin.

One of the most important goals the Black Sea Trust is committed to fostering in the region is cooperation and best practice exchanges among the countries of the Black Sea basin. There is no time like the present to support successful recipes of strengthening civil society and ensuring its resilience. To that end BST funded Code4Romania to launch a sister organization in the Republic of Moldova and create a viable partner for civil society and state actor alike, to improve the life of different communities with the help of technology.

In 2015, a devastating fire in a nightclub in Bucharest awakened the soul of an entire generation in Romania. It was supposed to be a fun night out in one of Bucharest’s coolest nightclubs. Goodbye to Gravity was coming out with a new album, and they chose Club Colectiv for their release party. Admission was free, and the band planned a spectacle with pyrotechnics and lights. The day of show, health and safety inspectors visited the nightclub and were paid to give their approval and leave. It was a common practice.

The pyrotechnics used by the band were the spark that set the club ablaze. The soundproofing foam used by the club was toxic and flammable. There were no fire exits. No sprinkler system. The club was at overcapacity. 64 people died, included four of the five members of Goodbye to Gravity. Nearly 150 young Romanians were injured. Hospitals were not equipped to handle the number of burn victims.

“It was the first time when disaster and corruption hit so close to us,” said co-founder and chief operations officer of Code4Romania, Olivia Vereha. “Of course, we always knew things are not alright, but it was never this close to home. It had not taken away so many of our friends at the same time, it had not been so abrupt on our lives as it was then.”

After the fire, young Romanians flooded the streets in numbers that had not been seen since the Romanian Revolution in 1989. They were not just grieving for the lives that had been lost. They were protesting the true cause of the fire and the pain it brough to an entire nation: systemic corruption. Young Romanians in and outside the country had not planned to become involved in civil society or become passionate about demanding a more transparent government, but when the moment came, they felt they had no choice. They stepped up.

This is the origin story of Code4Romania, one of the organizations formed to channel the passion of young people, especially of the Romanian diaspora, to hold Romania’s government to a higher standard. Olivia Vereha never thought she would be working to develop technological tools to strengthen civil society. In fact, before 2015, she wasn’t aware being a civil tech engineer was a real career. Then she met Bogdan Ivănel while they were both volunteering for an NGO soon after the Colectiv fire protests. He told Olivia that he was planning to start a volunteer organization that served the people of Romania through tech, and all of a sudden, things clicked for Olivia. “It was the first time when my skills were needed to actually make a difference,” she said, thinking about her job as a UX designer. “It was a motivation to finally put my skills to work, not just for a company or a studio, but for a place that can actually make a change.”

They got to work right away, creating the capacity for NGOs like the one they volunteered for to work better and faster and to grow their impact. One of their early feats was to make it easier for Romanians to redirect 3.5 percent of their income tax to an NGO instead of the state budget, launching a platform that allowed people to see the diversity of NGOs active in Romania and submit their tax forms online easily.

While Code4Romania worked hard to establish themselves as an organization and provide services for public good, others were watching. Mihaela Taranu was inspired to co-found Code4Moldova from Olivia and her colleagues and the hope she saw in how technology was used to strengthen society in countries outside Moldova. It also had not been in her plans to found an organization using tech solutions for civil society. She had been a researcher studying abroad when she began looking into the ‘brain drain’ in Moldova—young, talented Moldovans were leaving the country to find better opportunities, and she was one of them. “Moldova needs us. I knew I had to return home to change things,” Mihaela said. “It’s just a different situation when you come from a developing country. You just want to help. The feeling, it comes from inside. You cannot just look at people who are miserable and not want to do something.”  

Olivia and Mihaela both saw a dissonance between the private sector and public services. “You would go to work, you would get into your office building with a special card. You would have all these systems that worked seamlessly. Everything is integrated, everything is working, and you go back to your home with smart digital devices…and then you have to stand in line to get a paper from a public office, or you need to wait three weeks to get an envelope through the postal service,” explained Olivia. “Millennials see this immense gap. They’re like, ‘I know public services can work better. I know technology works. I’ve seen it traveling abroad, I’ve seen it in the multi-national company I work for. Why can’t it work in the public space?’”

That’s where Code4Romania and Code4Moldova come in. Both organizations found an incredible force of people in their countries who wanted to use their skills in tech to improve the quality of services they must rely on the government for and to strengthen their societies. When Code4Romania launched in 2016, 350 Romanians with computer skills registered to volunteer on the first night. Now, four years later, they have nearly 2,000 volunteers. Code4Moldova, launched in December 2019, saw their volunteers skyrocket in March of this year. Both organizations have seen how the pandemic has highlighted the need for tech solutions.

“The Pandemic Unites Us”

Before the pandemic, it a struggle in the Balkans to explain why digitization and turning to digital solutions should be a priority for nations like Romania and Moldova. “We always had to explain civil technology and why it is important,” Olivia said. “And usually the response was ‘we’ve got bigger problems, and you’re coming here to talk about software?’”

But when the pandemic hit, the world was forced to go digital—institutions, citizens, businesses, schools. “Now NGOs and public institutions realized they had a partner in us.”

Mihaela found volunteers eager to help Code4Moldova during the pandemic. In just two days, Code4Moldova built a data site showing COVID-19 cases in the country to help citizens and public health officials track cases. They also built a platform to help vulnerable Moldovans find help during the pandemic by connecting those who needed help getting groceries or safe transportation to their neighbors who were willing to lend a hand.  

Code4Romania built an ecosystem of six applications in response to the coronavirus:

  1. They built a browser add-on to fight disinformation on the coronavirus and provide a single point of communication between the state and media on information about the virus.
  2. Inspired by Singapore, volunteers developed a site visualizing real-time data on new COVID-19 cases.
  3. Based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Code4Romania created online decision trees to help people who are dealing with symptoms COVID-19 or are looking for accurate resources from the government on the coronavirus and services offer to help those who are vulnerable.
  4. Because many local NGOs have taken a hit in funding during the pandemic, Code4Romania partnered with them to build a platform to help NGOS receive donations during the pandemic, and to hold NGOs accountable to be transparent about what donations they received were being used for.
  5. In order to provide volunteer data to the Romanian Ministry of Health, Code4Romania built a digital medical diary so those who wish to keep track of their coronavirus symptoms and contact history can volunteer to share that information with health officials.
  6. Many Romanians who were seasonal workers abroad during the coronavirus lockdowns needed help/support, yet diplomatic missions were overloaded. So Code4Romania built an app to connect vulnerable Romanians abroad with from the Romanian diaspora and local NGOs that wanted to help.

Code4Romania reached 10 million people with their coronavirus applications and have received 45 million pageviews. Although the exact impact Code4Romania and Code4Moldova have had on their country’s societies is difficult to calculate, the urgency of their work is clear from the number of people benefiting from their services. The work Code4Romania and Code4Moldova have done during the pandemic reflect the movement that kicked off a generation of volunteers who wanted to use their skills for public good. When travesty hits, young people with a better vision for the future like Olivia and Mihaela do not stand by. They take action.