In 2011, Indian activist Anna Hazare set up a campaign to fight corruption across his home country. When he asked supporters to back his efforts via SMS, he received over 80,000 messages. Not completely satisfied, he asked again for support, this time in the form of a missed call. He received over 35 million votes.
Why? Missed calls cost less than SMS messages. Known as flashing, beeping, or squillo in emerging markets, a missed call allows the transmission of basic information without a connection charge. Depending on the number of rings, a flash in Kenya might mean “I love you” or “I’m waiting outside”. This workaround is the basis for Crowdring.
Responding to Hazare’s campaign, the team at the The Rules created Crowdring as a community organizing platform. The Rules calls itself a digital movement, and its new platform uses missed phone calls to support social change.
“What we realized is that there is this tool that is just sitting there, not being used… for connecting people to politics—and that is the basic mobile phone,” said Martin Kirk, senior strategist at The Rules.
Crowdring gives local activists the ability to set up a unique phone number for use as a literal “call to action” for any supporter. The incoming calls are collected, aggregated, and spliced into meaningful data points to inform campaign strategy. Organizers can send SMS updates to supporters.
Earlier this summer, the tool was piloted in Kenya to help combat a 16-percent “Unga Tax” increase on staple food items. The Rules worked with community organizers in Nairobi to form a coalition called Kenyans for Tax Justice and armed them with a Crowdring number.
The coalition spread the “No Unga Tax” message via posters and leaflets. From the stands of a national football match to the vests of garbage collectors, the information was disseminated throughout Nairobi.
They also organized small forums to explain the impacts of the bill. At the end of each forum, they told people that if they disagreed with the tax increase, dial the number. And they did. In under two weeks, they collected over 70,000 missed calls.
Gothani Blessol led the Nairobi effort for The Rules. “The biggest thing Crowdring provided was data,” she said. “Right from the beginning, we aired the number of missed calls across various media outlets to show that there was popular support of the campaign.” Awareness of the bill rose from nine percent to 58. And through the work of the many teams involved in the campaign, the government announced that it would take many of the basic goods out of the tax bill.
Anna Hazare’s campaign provided a strong indication that financial barriers can preclude involvement in social movements. Kirk explained, “Doing just purely online-based organizing restricts you so much to the socio-economic classes you can work with and, therefore, the type of issues you can work with.”
The Rules is eyeing Brazil and India for their next trials. While the team has bugs to work out, they’ve proven that Crowdring might just give a voice to those most affected by resource constraints, though it won’t be heard on the other end.
Photo by Gabriela Arp