How software is playing an increasingly important role in political discourse and civic engagement worldwide.
When entrepreneur Eric Ries and designer Jason Putorti found themselves personally frustrated after President Donald Trump’s election, they had a very Silicon Valley-like reaction: They built a product.
“A few months ago, I was doing my best to call elected representatives to make sure my voice was being heard and that they understand what’s important as a citizen,” Ries told Built to Adapt. “Contacting Congress is cumbersome and telephone lines are always jammed. Many members of Congress make it intentionally really difficult to email them.”
And so Resistbot was born. Resistbot is an SMS message and Facebook Messenger-based bot that lets anyone turn a text message into a fax to their representatives and senators. As of July 2017, more than 4 million faxes have been sent using the platform.
The collision course between tech and activism has been taking root for years across the entire political spectrum.
Regardless of political affiliation and what ideologies individuals support, software is playing an increasingly important role in political discourse and civic engagement worldwide. Resistbot is just one example of a wide-ranging trend that includes everything from walkie-talkie app Zello being used to organize demonstrations in Venezuela and the Ukraine to Ushahdi, a mapping-and-data crowdsourcing tool developed in Kenya tapped to track election fraud and post-disaster aid, among other uses. Qual.net links smartphones and computers into ad-hoc networks for sharing information when conventional internet or smartphone access is blocked out. In South Korea, a website called ParkGeunHack.com went viral and helped lead to the ouster of President Park Geun-hye last year.
ResistBot is a very American iteration of that same impulse. Ries, best known for the Long Term Stock Exchange and writing The Lean Startup, says that Putorti and himself created Resistbot’s first incarnation over the course of a weekend in late February 2017 using Twilio, RapidPro, and open source information obtained from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Coding Political Change
A number of politically-oriented technology platforms have arisen in recent years, both post-2016 “resistance” endeavors like SwingLeft and the Town Hall Project and non-partisan tools aimed at getting Americans more informed about government, namely Countable. Thanks to a combination of easily accessible APIs and increased end-user interest in activism, it’s easier than ever for developers to create apps, bots, and websites designed to lobby politicians, organize movements or sway public opinion. Despite a surge in tech interest in politics following the 2016 presidential election, the collision course between tech and activism has been taking root for years across the entire political spectrum. Sunlight Labs, a non-partisan organization that shuttered shortly before the 2016 Presidential election, developed a range of political web tools and APIs now operated by ProPublica, the Center for Responsive Politics, and DataMade. FollowTheMoney offers an API which lets anyone see, across party lines, who is donating money to politicians at the state level.
Difficulty reaching their congresspeople led Ries and Putorti their own novel solution: Going after congressional fax machines. It’s simple, using existing technology, to turn SMS-style text messages into faxes — and, thanks to quirk of the Congressional switchboard, representatives and senators’ offices alike receive faxes. Even in 2017.
According to Ries, he and his all-volunteer team initially focused on launching Resistbot as a minimum viable product to be deployed as quickly as possible. This meant intentionally creating a bot users could text message, which would then use APIs from Twilio — a popular cloud services platform whose products are used for two-factor authentication text messages, among other things — along with publicly available Congressional switchboard information to turn those text messages into proper faxes.
@botresist, I want to kiss you. Thank you for making it so easy to be an involved citizen and for setting the bar so high for chatbots.
After the project launched, Resistbot also put together a donation mechanism to pay for their Twilio bill and keep the lights running and also launched a Slack channel to coordinate their volunteers. Volunteers would geocode data using Google’s Civic Information API, comb through Congressional contact information and find the correct fax numbers to reach different politicians.
Resistbot, along with similar tools like FaxZero and Democracy.io, were quickly adopted by users hoping to protest policy choices working their way through the Legislative and Executive branches. Although not launched with a specific political goal in mind, Resistbot happened to launch as the new “repeal and replace” healthcare bill was announced. Opposition to the bill created a large group of early adopters shortly after it was announced on Product Hunt. Many users leveraged Twitter as a way to coordinate mass-fax campaigns to specific politicians. “Interestingly, women make up 78% of our users,” Putorti said. “Women are the resistance.”
Later add-ons to Resistbot include functionality for calling members of Congress, contacting governors and newspaper editors, sending physical letters, information on town halls and legislation, and accessibility via Alexa and Facebook Messenger.
“We had a serious growth spurt at the beginning,” Ries adds. “In the early days, we focused on scalability. However, success let us recruit more volunteers and make it more of a ‘Swiss army knife’ for civic engagement.”
Tips for Activism Tech Development
No matter the passion and groundswell of volunteers, creating tech products for activism and political organization can be challenging.
There are the expected challenges: When you’re creating tools for political organization, you can’t usually use standard monetization schemes such as monthly SaaS subscriptions or pay-per-license download fees. Because you’re creating tools people use when they’re not at work, your project will likely fail unless it’s as simple and usable as possible. And for outsiders who don’t have a lot of political or organizing domain experience, you may have to learn quickly.
“With a lot of civic tech projects, the barrier to get started is so high that people get intimidated and give up.” — Eric Ries
Ries has two specific pieces of advice for creators of political or organizing tools, regardless of affiliation. The first is to keep things simple. Putorti and Ries intentionally shipped Resistbot to users as quickly as possible, with a barebones UI and functionality set which was rapidly updated once the tool was on market. As originally launched, users couldn’t target their messages, they could only send a fax to their local representatives and senators.
“With a lot of civic tech projects, the barrier to get started is so high that people get intimidated and give up.” By keeping the initial iteration aggressively simple, users who never called their representatives and senators could easily contact them. As Resistbot’s user base grew, Ries, Putorti and the volunteers working on the project could prioritize feature additions based on user feedback.
And, yes, constantly keeping an eye out for user feedback is the second part of the equation for creating organizing tools. Ries says many of Resistbot’s users are “civilians” who come from outside of the tech world. One of his team’s early design decisions was to set the bot to automatically ask users for feedback every time they use Resistbot. That feedback then instantly posts to a Slack channel available to all of Resistbot’s volunteer team. It’s a simple tech trick, but one that’s just as useful for volunteer projects as it is for commercial products.
“That feedback loop is a key part of Resistbot’s success,” Ries says. The project has also become successful in a very short time. In less than six months, over 13,000 users have followed Resistbot’s Twitter feed and more than 20,000 daily active users are sending faxes.
Given the daily news cycle as of late, there’s no indication the faxes will slow down anytime soon.
Change is the only constant, so individuals, institutions, and businesses must be Built to Adapt. At Pivotal, we believe change should be expected, embraced, and incorporated continuously through development and innovation, because good software is never finished.