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How Ukrainians Use Crowdsourcing to Document the War

Crowdsourcing has been increasingly used by journalists, activists, human rights defenders and law enforcement for documenting war crimes during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which started in February 2022. Focusing on three specific cases, this article looks at the benefits and the challenges of crowdsourcing as an information gathering method in investigations.

by Tetyana Bohdanova

The term "crowdsourcing" was first coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 “Wired” magazine article where he defined it as a new way of sourcing labor enabled by the Internet. Different types of commercial and non-commercial crowdsourcing emerged since.

For instance, Wikipedia is the best example of collective knowledge sourcing, Kickstarter is an example of a crowdfunding platform, and Ushahidi is one of the first platforms for crowd-mapping information. In fact, Ushahidi has been celebrated for being among the first platforms that enabled “activist mapping” or a type of activism that combines crowdsourcing, citizen journalism, and geospatial information for social change or public accountability. More often than not, Ushahidi has been used for crowdmapping crisis information.

Crowdsourcing has also been increasingly used by journalists (archived here) and, with the unfolding of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, by activists, human rights defenders, and law enforcement for documenting war crimes. Alongside widespread adaptation of mapping tools such as TimeMap (an open-source mapping software by Forensic Architecture), a particular feature of these real-time events documentation efforts involves merging open source (OSINT) and traditional investigation techniques with crowdsourcing in order to produce robust evidence of the unfolding events.

For example, the project “Wall Evidence” (archived here) calls on the residents from recently de-occupied territories to send in photos of inscriptions left by Russian soldiers inside and outside the buildings. The archive is open for use by researchers, artists, and everyone who works for the victory of Ukraine.

Screenshot of the homepage of, taken on 13 March 2024 by ETI. The homepage warns the visitor of potentially harmful content / images ahead.

According to the project team, the inscriptions reflect the narratives (article available in Ukrainian, Spanish and Japanese) of Russian state propaganda spread in the military, help signify how the premises were used by the occupying army, and can even indicate that a crime has been committed (article in Ukrainian).

The project grew out of the "Mizhvukhamy" cultural initiative documenting the inscriptions its members personally discovered in Kyiv and later Chernihiv regions, liberated in early spring of 2022. To do so, the project’s team went on “expeditions” through the de-occupied territories and scoured open sources (social media and public chat channels, websites, etc.) for similar material. Following this, the team called on residents of these territories to submit photos of inscriptions using simple means like email and popular messengers(article in Ukrainian).

From the point of view of crowdsourcing techniques, publishing data that the project team has discovered themselves, alongside data submitted by their target audience is likely to result in a bigger volume of collected material, greater visibility, and, as a result, encourage more people to contribute. In short, this creates a sort of snowballing effect, where every new contribution is likely to make the initiative more attractive to other potential contributors.

When calling on a wider public to contribute data, there are a number of issues that crowdsourcing initiatives should consider, including verifiability of data and security of contributors, especially when we speak of data that may signify wrongdoing. In the case of “Wall Evidence,” most times, no specific security measures seem to be required; however, some photos in the project’s archive have been provided by users from territories still under occupation, which may expose them to a significant risk. Such risks can usually be mitigated through careful communication with potential contributors and the use of safer data collection tools, such as encrypted mail and messengers (e.g. Signal for messages, Protonmail for email), or special platforms (e.g. Tella app, Secure Drop). Note that this article does not endorse any specific tools and that secure communication tools should be chosen after a careful risk assessment. No one app or service fits the needs of every crowdsourcing initiative.

In Ukraine, not just cultural activists are collecting information about the activities of the Russian occupiers – the government has opened an official platform — WarCrimes (archived here) — coordinated by the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, where any user may personally submit evidence of crimes committed by the occupying military.

Screenshot of the English language homepage of, taken on 14 March 2024 by ETI.

The website uses a simple submission form where one may send in multimedia materials, provide a description, indicate the time and place of an occurrence, as well as any available information about suspected perpetrators. The form (archived here) also allows for initial categorization of data, asking users to identify which crime may have taken place – options ranging from the destruction of non-military infrastructure to the torture or killing of civilians. This structured type of evidence gathering is referred to in the literature as "specific" (in contrast to “open”) and provides for better organization and analysis of collected data. The government also provides a mobile application as an additional option to submit reports. This option reflects the widespread use of mobile applications in Ukraine and is the right choice from the standpoint of effective audience engagement by offering familiar technology.

The Center for War Crimes Documentation (archived here) set up by Ukrainian media company Starlight and Ukrainian watchdog organization Opora approaches audience engagement in a similar manner.

Screenshot of the homepage of, taken on 14 March 2024 by ETI.

Based in Warsaw – the capital of Poland, which has initially accepted the largest number of Ukrainian refugees – the Center offers two very accessible ways of submitting information: via an online form or through an in-person interview. With the online form, a photo, video, written testimony, or anything else that can be used in an ordinary criminal investigation can be submitted as potential evidence.

For collected information to become evidence — proof of something that happened or did not happen — there are complex evaluation processes in place, starting from verifying the source to confirming that the actual information is what it claims to be. Crowdsourcing initiatives always face the challenge of data verification, but its importance increases exponentially when data points to a potential crime. Crowdsourcers approach this issue in a variety of ways — frequently resorting to a mix of open source intelligence (OSINT) techniques, witness statements, and other methods – to verify the information they collect. Ultimately, choosing an approach for data collection, storage, and verification largely depends on their end goal and available resources. For instance, to ensure that the recorded witness statements are admissible in court, Center for War Crimes Documentation engages lawyers and psychologists who support the data verification and vetting process.

The fact that the Russian war in Ukraine practically unfolds online in real time enables such mass documentation efforts to continue and the popularity of crowdsourcing as an information gathering method to grow. As pointed out by human rights defender Oleksandr Pavlichenko, “every person with a smartphone can witness and record crimes, the main thing is not to be indifferent" (source, in Ukrainian).

Credits and Licensing

  • Author: Tetyana Bohdanova
  • Editorial support & copy-editing: Laura Ranca, Jasmine Erkan
  • Visuals: ETI

About the author: Originally from Lviv, Ukraine, Tetyana is an elections and civil society development specialist and a researcher of the relationship between technology and democracy.

CC BY-SA 4.0

This article is published by Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible (ETI) project, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license

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This article was produced as part of the Collaborative and Investigative Journalism Initiative (CIJI) ( co-funded by the European Union. 


Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

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