The Breakthroughs in Storytelling Awards, Summit and Symposium honor the most innovative approaches to narrative from the past year.

The Breakthroughs in Storytelling Awards, Summit and Symposium honor the most innovative approaches to narrative from the past year.

Backup Ukraine

The Danish National Committee of UNESCO, Blue Shield Denmark, Polycam, Virtue Worldwide, Ukraine’s Heritage Emergency Rescue Initiative, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine
LiDAR app
Denmark / United States / Ukraine
April 2022

“Destroying a country's cultural heritage is the fastest way to undermine its national identity. Our mission in Blue Shield is to work before, during and after a catastrophe or armed conflict to help protect and rescue our shared heritage. As we have learned after World War II and many later conflicts, saving a country’s cultural heritage is the best path to reconstruction and revival of society. Total loss is our greatest fear, and Backup Ukraine provides a new and important tool that can prevent that.” —Søren la Cour Jensen, chair of Blue Shield Denmark

What happens when your country is bombed? Apartment buildings crumble in moments. Cars are wiped out. People too. Office buildings become a blazing hulk. Churches and monuments that have been there for centuries are reduced to rubble in a flash. The story of your country disappears with them.

Backup Ukraine lets anyone become an archivist. You can scan buildings and monuments as full 3D models using just your smartphone. And store them in an open, secure online archive — a place where no bombs can reach.

To help preserve the biggest and most important cultural sites, Polycam has partnered with Skeiron, a team of passionate and skilled 3D scanning professionals in Ukraine using their own laser, photogrammetry and point cloud software for large scale scans. Bootstrapped but fearless and fiercely determined, Skeiron can capture the central masterpieces of Ukraine’s architectural and artistic heritage.

The Church of Saints Andrew and Jehoshaphat, completed in 1630 in central Lviv, has one of the city's most stunning Baroque interiors, adorned with carved arches and frescoes. It has been scanned inside and out, with the interior scan of particular quality, documenting its exquisite and richly decorated black-and-gold interior.

The capture of public works is limited to a volunteer corps with written permission from Ukrainian authorities. You must be physically located in Ukraine in order to volunteer. It is not recommended for other civilians to scan public works.

A scan of the Church of Saints Andrew and Jehoshaphat in Lviv.

Everything counts, from famous statues to local gathering places. Materials with lots of texture work particularly well — statues, murals, artwork. Shiny or transparent surfaces are harder for the reconstruction algorithm to deal with. Even large buildings can be scanned via drone. You can scan indoor locations, providing a historical document of life in shelters, for example. People also scan burned-out cars, wrecked Russian tanks—daily reminders of life in the war zone.

Polycam 3D captures are dimensionally accurate down to approximately one inch. Captures are processed quickly and securely on the device itself — no internet connection required. Every capture tagged with Ukrainian coordinates is automatically saved to the Backup Ukraine database. A scan needs to published in order to be saved. (The app will ask when uploading.) Location is turned on by default, but disabling it prevents the your capture from being included in the database.

All items marked "savable" will be available through the Creative Commons 4.0 license and shared with UNESCO and Blue Shield’s museum partners. This is enabled by default. Creators have the option to disable the savable option through the Polycam interface, retaining full rights if they wish. Doing this will prevent your captures from being preserved long-term. But the rights to all captured 3D data belong by default to the individual creator, not to Polycam.

Polygram pledges to provide capture, usage, download and storage free of charge to anyone physically located in Ukraine for the duration of the Russia-Ukraine war. Polycam also commits to maintaining the online archive for a minimum of five years after the war has ended. Savable data will be freely accessible to all partner organisations and the general public directly from the Polycam Ukraine web page.

Backup Ukraine was set up in April 2022, soon after the Russian invasion began on February 24, by the Danish  National Commission for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and Blue Shield Denmark, a unit of the international organization that helps protect global cultural heritage sites under the auspices of the 1954 Hague Convention, in partnership with Virtue Worldwide, the creative agency unit of Vice Media Group. They work in close collaboration with the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in Kyiv and the Heritage Emergency Rescue Initiative, an initiative of Ukrainian museum experts that was set up to salvage and restore the country's cultural heritage by protecting museum collections, conducting rescue operations, gathering information on crimes against cultural heritage, and coordinating the actions of state and municipal authorities, cultural institutions and international organizations.

The technology that makes this initiative possible is provided by Polycam, a Los Angeles-based startup whose app uses the LiDAR sensor on Apple devices to enable you to quickly create color 3D scans of objects and spaces. LiDAR — Light Detection And Ranging, a technology that uses light as a pulsed laser to measure distances to an object and generate 3D information — was integrated into the camera modules of iPhone and iPad models in 2020. The Polycam app was developed shortly afterwards by John Stalbaum, Chris Heinrich and Elliott Spelman, the team that had earlier been responsible for, the augmented reality app from AR and computer vision company Ubiquity6 (now a unit of Discord). Heinrich, who has a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Chicago, and Spelman, who has an MFA in design from Stanford, incorporated Polycam in late 2020 with seed money from Sequoia Capital, YouTube founder Chad Hurley and others.

Large-scale scanning of historically important Ukrainian structures is supported by Skeiron, a small, Lviv-based company founded in 2016 that specializes in laser and photogrammetric scanning, AR and VR processing, 3D visualization and the like in Ukraine and neighboring countries. In March 2022, weeks after the Russian invasion began, Skeiron launched #SaveUkrainianHeritage, an effort that dovetails with the aims of Backup Ukraine.

All partners contribute on a 100% non-profit basis.

"Amid the enormous suffering inflicted on Ukrainians, another less heralded tragedy is unfolding. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not only attempting to wipe Ukraine off the map but eliminate the cultural objects that frame the country’s national narrative. . . .

"Consider what Putin has done thus far to Ukraine’s heritage. Within the first four days of the invasion, Russian forces purposefully incinerated the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum and its trove of Ukrainian folk art, located northwest of the capital, in staggering violation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. A few days later, Moscow damaged the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, where Nazis slaughtered nearly 34,000 Jews in 1941. Russian soldiers subsequently looted the Popov Manor House museum and continue to obliterate Ukrainian cultural treasures unabated." —Foreign Policy

"The war in Ukraine has ravaged cities from Mariupol to Kharkiv and reduced many buildings to piles of rubble. But a first-of-its-kind initiative launched in April called Backup Ukraine is making sure the cultural sites lost in the war will never truly be lost. . . .

"Tao Thomsen, co-creator of Backup Ukraine, told Insider the initiative began after he and his team heard "disconnected stories" of cultural heritage sites being destroyed during the war, which led him to believe that Russia may be "willfully destroying the material foundation of [Ukraine's] culture." —Insider

"The Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol once featured 2,000 exhibits and an extensive collection of prominent Ukrainian artwork. On March 23, city council confirmed to NBC News that the Russian military had destroyed it. Now the Danish UNESCO National Commission and Blue Shield Denmark are launching a new project that aims to at least digitally preserve Ukraine’s important architecture, statues, and monuments, many of which are at risk during Russia’s invasion of the country. 'Backup Ukraine' is repurposing Polycam, a powerful prosumer app that allows you to use an iPhone or iPad to 3D scan any physical object, and distributing it to create a means for anyone in Ukraine to quickly and easily scan and upload digital renderings of important landmarks." —Fast Company

"A blown-up Russian tank near Kyiv, a monument for Ukrainian writer Borys Hrinchenko, an apartment building destroyed by artillery and a slide in a children's playground covered in graffiti. In Ukraine, these objects are among hundreds of landmarks, cultural sites, monuments and everyday things that civilians have scanned on mobile phones through an app called Polycam. . . .

"The 3D scanning of Ukraine's cultural heritage is a 'fantastic educational tool,' said Yuri Shevchuk, a professor of the Ukrainian language at Columbia University. 'What is being done now is almost like making Ukrainian history undeletable, resistant to time,' said Shevchuk, a Ukraine native. 'You can use this as education for students but also for Ukrainians themselves and the world. The project also causes us, as Ukrainians, to rethink and rediscover what has been largely unnoticed.'" —CNN