Salmaan Farooqui

April 11, 2022

The Globe and Mail

Poems, sheet music, historical images, oral history recordings and music performances. They’re all vulnerable pieces of Ukrainian history on websites that are at risk of being erased as the country’s infrastructure is battered by the Russian invasion.

In the days after the war in Ukraine started, a handful of professors in North America and Europe started to create an online community of volunteers that are trawling through Ukrainian websites to preserve some of the valuable artifacts that often only exist on the web. It grew to a movement of 1,300 volunteers, and already they say some of the 25 terabytes of data saved have gone offline as Russian bombardment damages internet lines and DNS servers in Ukraine.

Liz Pringi, an IT worker in Ottawa, is one of roughly 75 Canadians volunteering with the project, dubbed Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, or SUCHO. Some of her family lived through oppression in Estonia when it was part of the Soviet Union, and it compelled Ms. Pringi to take some form of action when Russia began its war in Ukraine. “I wanted to help because the stories I grew up hearing about what the Russian military was doing to my family and Estonia made it hit close to home for me,” said Ms. Pringi, noting that people throughout the Eastern European diaspora in Canada and elsewhere have been a big part of the project. “I just wanted to do something.” Ms. Pringi said one eerie sign of the work’s importance came when she noticed that a DNS server for a Ukrainian website had completely disappeared, which she assumed meant that the server’s building had been destroyed. “I had never seen that in my entire professional life,” said Ms. Pringi.

One of the founders and organizers of the SUCHO is Quinn Dombrowski, an academic technology specialist with Stanford University in California. She said other academics alongside her rushed to save as much data as possible in the days after the war began, fearing time was running out. “I was anxious that maybe we would be too late to save some of these collections – we weren’t really sure what would be left after weeks of war,” said Ms. Dombrowski. She said some of the websites being targeted were for museums, community organizations and universities. “Servers can be destroyed, power can go out, internet connection can go out. It’s very unstable.”

In the many weeks since, people with different areas of expertise have come together to make SUCHO work like a well-oiled machine. Instruction manuals for data scraping have been made to help involve people who aren’t tech-savvy, and there are even volunteers conducting quality control to ensure materials have been translated and sorted properly in their archive. One member of the team dedicated their time to finding websites at particular risk of being shut down because of their location near areas of heavy fighting.

Kimberly Martin, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, is one of the co-ordinators taking care of organizing the data that is being collected so that it’ll be easy to rebuild the sites that are lost. She would also find websites of importance and list them on a shared document where other volunteers could work on scraping their data.

Some of the historical work she helped save includes Ukrainian folk music, which she would play when doing hours of volunteer work to remind her of the importance of what’s being saved. “It made it more meaningful and tangible to me,” said Prof. Martin, who put in around two hours every day at the start of the project, and now checks in once a day. She expected that working with so many people online in a relatively unstructured format could be chaotic, but was pleasantly surprised with the group’s progress in saving thousands of websites.  “One of the most amazing aspects of this is seeing just the amount of people coming together,” said Prof. Martin. Dawson MacPhee, a 20-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Guelph who knew Prof. Martin through a university project, contributed around 20 hours of work to create copies of museum and university study websites. “When I looked into the project, I figured this is something that I could do, and if I could make even a small contribution then that would be kind of cool,” said Mr. MacPhee.

Prof. Martin said many museums and community organizations are moving toward storing most of their documents online, and the urgency of SUCHO’s work shows that it’s important for organizations to find ways to preserve their data before calamity strikes. “What needs to come out of this is a recognition that this work needs to happen before war starts,” said Prof. Martin. “It should if anything open up conversations about what it means to house so much important cultural heritage on web servers.”