Beta Open: SMS platform for call-in activism

Like many people, after the recent election I have been looking for ways to get more involved in political activism. Rather than try to start a movement myself, my aim is help existing organizations amplify their message and organize more effectively.

I’ve built an SMS-based software tool that allows activists to organize and coordinate a call-in campaign to swamp the phone lines of all the relevant officials on a particular decision. I’m looking for non-profits or a group with a worthy cause (and a decent number of members) to help me beta test it. We’ll work together to design and run a campaign.

Calling is a very effective form of activism

The universal response I have gotten to “what can I do?” from everyone I’ve spoken to with any experience in DC is call your Senator, Representative or relevant elected official’s office. Former staffers all seem to agree that tweeting and posting on Facebook are almost useless, emailing and mailed letters are slightly better, but calls are the absolute best way to influence government officials.

Smart non-profits and activists have embraced this and it is already paying off. A flood of calls to House Republicans has been attributed for a reversal of a proposal to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. Planned Parenthood generated 22,000 calls with their I Stand With Planned Parenthood call-in campaign. A independent group called Daily Action is sending a daily text to 1,000s to take one action per day (mostly calling a specific official about a targeted issue).

But organizing calling campaigns is harder than it should be

A steady trickle of calls day to day on a topic will have some effect on a politician’s opinion, but it seems the best way to really cause change is a coordinated effort to ring the phones off the hook. If every relevant decision maker on an issue gets non-stop calls opposing/supporting a decision for even one day they are very likely to respond. However coordinating these campaigns is fraught with challenges. Specifically:

  • The organizers can’t coordinate who and when people call. There is an over-focus on one national figure (like Speaker Ryan) rather than a targeted avalanche on all the relevant decision-makers.
  • People are hesitant to just dial a number and start talking without more hand-holding and a reminder of the talking points. We need to gradually overcome stage freight by making it as convenient as possible and providing talking points and information at exactly the right time.
  • There is often a gap between when someone learns of the campaign (maybe 10p at night on Facebook) and when they can actually make the call (during normal office hours when they may also be at work). They like it at night but forget to make the call on their lunch break the next day.
  • Sharing the campaign is challenging. I’ve often seen screenshots of a list of phone numbers with talking points shared on Facebook and Twitter as a screenshot. Far too many steps between seeing that information and taking action.
  • Sometimes after all that work you just get a busy signal. For many folks having just one successful interaction where they called, spoke to someone and effected change starts a positive feedback loop of civic engagement. But if the first time they work up the courage to make a call, they get a busy signal, they may never try again.

What you really need is a campaign that

  1. Lets participants join the campaign any time of day
  2. Can easily be shared with friends
  3. Accommodates their schedule and finds the best time and person to call
  4. Reminds them of the talking points right before the call
  5. Has a list of people to call and rotates through if the line is busy

I’ve built a beta software tool specifically to tackle these challenges. First there is just one number that you send a text to (at any hour) to opt in and confirm you want to participate in the campaign.

On the morning of the campaign, every participant receives a reminder text (in their local timezone) and can reply to suggest the best time that day for them to make a call (on their lunch break, after school, etc).

A few minutes before the scheduled time they get another reminder with the option to reply back with a new time if they aren’t available. At the specified time they get a call from our app.

The app plays a short recording (made by the group running the campaign) with the information and talking points and then tries to connect.

Each campaign has a roster of different targets to call so if the line is busy the app will just go down the line trying each phone number (with specific pre-recorded talking points for each) until it can connect the participant to someone.

Who am I and why doing this?

I’m a software entrepreneur, clean energy proponent and very concerned citizen. This is not some funded startup and I am not looking to do anything more than make a contribution in the best way I know how.

So how much does it cost?

As I mentioned this is not a business that I intend to try to make money off of. I will likely need to charge for it but not anything more than covering the costs. What those are are depends primarily on server costs and Twilio (which handles the SMS and phone routing) costs. Both are a function of how many people we reach out to and how many of them participate. Back of the envelope I think a campaign generated 1,000s of calls would only cost $100s of dollars or something of that order of magnitude which seems very worth it to me.

Isn’t this already being done?

Yes that’s why we know it works. Big non-profits with a web team and experience as well as independent groups with their own agenda have tested this strategy and it is very effective. My goal here is to make this kind of toolkit available for many non-profits and activists that don’t have in house development teams that can put something like this together. I’d also really like to bring in groups targeting state and local campaigns as well as national issues.

So where’s the app?

In general, I think most people have enough (too many) apps on their phone. There is no app to download and interaction with participants happens entirely through SMS. There is a back-end app for managing the campaigns but I will be working hand-in-hand with the first few users to make sure everything gets setup correctly before we start telling 1,000s of people when and where to make calls.

Let’s do this!

If you work in campaigns at a non-profit or know someone who does please reach out: DM me on Twitter or email me.