Understanding Premise’s Role in Ukraine

01 March 2022

By Maury Blackman

Read this post in Ukrainian and Russian here.

An overview of how Premise works and why we crowdsource insights from around the world.

In light of recent questions about Premise’s task marketplace, we wanted to provide some context about how our platform, data, and internal systems work. 

The proximate cause of this confusion was a social media campaign that emerged late last week alleging that Premise tasks were being used to identify Ukrainian targets on behalf of Russia. As we’ve stated in all external communications, this was unequivocally false. At no point has Premise worked, nor would we ever work, for the Russian government nor any party affiliated with the Russian government. Premise strongly supports Ukraine and the Ukrainian people defending themselves against Russia’s ongoing aggression.

Nevertheless, social media users who were unfamiliar with Premise were alarmed by screenshots of tasks from our marketplace, written in Russian, offering small sums of money to smartphone users in exchange for photos of key points of interest. The screenshots were spread on social media and amplified by entirely unfounded allegations.

These tasks were a completely normal part of Premise’s operations. They were not and are not a secret; in fact, we would be thrilled if everyone reading this downloaded the Premise mobile app and joined our Contributor community today.

We believe the entire incident is a misunderstanding that can be cleared up with some context on how our task marketplace works. 

First, we want to reiterate again: Premise is certain that none of the data we have sourced — in any time period — was requested by or furnished to any party affiliated with Russia. We have no evidence of a security breach. After a thorough investigation internally and by US law enforcement, we are absolutely confident that the recent allegations were a fabrication of social media.

Here’s a closer look at what we think happened: exactly what these tasks were, how our crowdsourcing works, and who the information we gather is provided to. 

What is Premise?

Premise is a crowdsourced insights company based in San Francisco. Our technology mobilizes smartphone users around the world to source actionable insights, in real time, for a diverse range of customers across the private, public, and non-profit sectors.

In practice, what this means is that Premise operates a marketplace on which any smartphone user — who we call a Contributor — can find simple information-gathering tasks in their area and complete them to earn money. Tasks often include some mix of:

– Answering survey questions (“Which of these airlines do you have the best impression of?”)

– Providing objective data (“How far is the nearest supermarket from your residence?”) 

– Taking photos (“Please find the following product in your supermarket and take pictures of where it appears on the shelf.”)

Photographs are an important part of Premise’s offering. The value of crowdsourcing is that it allows organizations who want on-the-ground facts to source them from wherever people have smartphones. (And since more than three-quarters of the human race has a smartphone, that means you can get on-the-ground facts from anywhere in the world.) A picture really is worth a thousand words, and if you’re a company that wants to understand how your products are being displayed in stores around the world, it’s hard to get better evidence than a photo.

Photos, for example, are integral to our project helping Unilever trace the first mile of their palm oil production as they work to ensure a deforestation-free supply chain. In that project, we put tasks in the local Premise marketplace in Aceh province in Indonesia and let local Contributors earn money by photographing where and how the fruit got picked up. We do this all over the world: help everyday people earn money by voluntarily and anonymously completing tasks from the Premise marketplace.

Our marketplace

It’s important to note that Premise, and only Premise, has control of our task marketplace. It is not open-source. Every task that appears in Premise is created and vetted by our internal employees, largely to ensure the safety and security of our Contributors. Furthermore, in order for a task to be created, the requesting customer must have a contract with Premise.

In other words, we know exactly which customer requested every single task that appears in the Premise marketplace. In the last week, we can confirm that none of the tasks running in Ukraine — or anywhere else in the world — had any ties to Russian entities. We could trace each and every one to either a paying customer or to our own internal data-gathering operation.

We can also attest that there was no evidence of a security breach against our marketplace last week. All the tasks that were running in Ukraine were created according to our standard operating procedure. 

No tasks in our non-US marketplace, by the way, require physical labor; only short sentiment surveys or observational photos of publicly available information. We can state with absolute certainty that no task involved the marking of buildings. Any assertion to the contrary is false.

The only tasks we put into the marketplace — including the tasks screenshotted and shared on social media — we knowingly created and put live for humanitarian and knowledge efforts. It’s a use case that is core to Premise’s business and culture. 

Humanitarian visibility

As a global crowdsourcing platform, Premise offers unique visibility into places that are hard to reach in near-real time. It’s one of our specialties. A common use case for this capability is understanding humanitarian situations.

When USAID wanted to understand the location and state of Venezuelan settlements in Colombia, Premise Contributors were able to source that information with the help of photographic evidence and help direct resources where they needed to go. 

When Mt. Nyiragongo erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, responses from Premise Contributors helped international aid organizations conduct preliminary needs assessments before arriving. These tasks revealed how many roads were closed, where there were shortages of water, and other crucial insights.

And in Ukraine, during 2022’s unprovoked war of Russian aggression, Premise tasks were deployed to help our customers in the international humanitarian space understand exactly what was happening on the ground.

These tasks — which asked for Contributors to report on local conditions like road closures, the state of health facilities, and food availability — had been running alongside many other surveys and observational requests for months prior to Russia’s invasion. Here’s a list of the top ten location tasks since January 1, 2022:

Credit: Ukraine Top 10 Location Tasks

These tasks were no different from what Premise was running in many other countries. To pick another country at random, here were our top location tasks from Nigeria during the same period:

Credit: Nigeria Top 10 Location Tasks

The two countries’ tasks are virtually the same. 

Furthermore, this data was being put to good use. In the lead-up to Friday’s social media incident, Premise was one of the few data sources in the world that a number of international nonprofits were trusting to not only assess humanitarian needs, but to actually understand how they were going to get their own people out of there if necessary. But the situation on the ground was chaotic and dangerous. We knew that better than most. 

In the end, the confusion that Premise was uniquely situated to cut through was the very same environment in which our tasks were perceived to be part of an enemy operation. Much like a journalist mistaken for an enemy combatant, we were singled out as dangerous when, in reality, we were providing critical information to pro-Ukrainian organizations. It’s what happens when innocent people are forced to defend their homes from a ruthless and senseless attack.

We shut off our service in Ukraine to make sure none of the allegations had any substance. After a thorough investigation, we are absolutely confident they did not. And that’s why we’re turning Premise back on inside Ukraine.

Resuming operations

We still don’t fully understand how the misinformation started on social media, but it was incorrect.

Premise does not provide data to the Russian government, nor do we work with anyone we have the slightest bit of evidence of being affiliated with the Russian government. Premise is about providing ground-level truth to organizations that advance democracy and open societies. We are eager to resume that mission around the world.

As the situation in Ukraine continues to unfold, Premise does not want social media misinformation to choke off a trusted, objective flow of data at a time when international aid organizations need it desperately.

For that reason, Premise is announcing that we will be relaunching our tasks in Ukraine starting Wednesday, March 2, and continuing to connect the needs of Ukrainian citizens with the international community — with whom we stand in solidarity.

Follow Premise on LinkedInFacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Email us at [email protected].

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