On the last 4th of July, VentureBeat took a look at five bots that could reshape or change democracy. One year later, we revisit the bot landscape with the same idea in mind.
Detroit has a poverty rate of nearly 40 percent, one of the highest in the nation, and median home values have fallen to roughly $42,000. That’s why Outlier Media acquires the phone numbers of tens of thousands of renters in Detroit and sends them text messages with free information from publicly available data sources. Housing was chosen as a focus for the news outlet that operates entirely within SMS — and soon Facebook Messenger — because it’s the area with the highest number of complaints from Detroit residents, founder Sarah Alvarez told VentureBeat in a phone interview.
The burn rate, or those who completely ignore the messages, is pretty high, but for those who do answer, Outlier provides free information about their property owner and any other housing-related questions they may have. Some news is reported to subscribers in SMS-sized messages, while other stories are either shared with local reporters (upon request of the renter) or written as traditional news stories in local news outlets.
Launched in January, Outlier is focused on delivering constructive value to its users.
Outlier launched in January with $80,000 in funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. If its messaging news service proves successful, Alvarez wants to expand its data-driven approach to other cities where public data reveals grievances and a demand for information.
The reality of news economics, Alvarez said, is that people who live in low-income areas have been historically ignored by news outlets. To better serve those communities and to prove itself worthy of funding by its readership, Alvarez said Outlier focuses on giving one-on-one attention to its readers.
“Let’s not use this kind of technology to reach the same exact news consumers. let’s use it to really expand our market and start to reach low income news consumers who are completely undervalued,” Alvarez said. “They’re harder to serve because they demand more from us, and I want to see news organizations work harder to serve them.”
Just over three months old, Resistbot has grown to include more than 730,000 users, and at least 1,000 users in every U.S. congressional district. Thus far, Resistbot has been used to send more than 3.5 million faxes to elected officials via SMS, but letters just get sent somewhere to be tallied, Resistbot cofounder Jason Putorti told VentureBeat in a phone interview. During a congressional recess this summer, Resistbot will ping its users and encourage them to take part in direct action or protests against members of Congress who refuse to attend town hall meetings.
“History is littered with examples of where if you get 50 or 60 people to show up somewhere and protest, that can have an outsized impact,” Putorti said.
Since launch, Resistbot has also grown to include input from an Amazon Alexa skill and Facebook Messenger bot.
Visit the Code for America website and the first thing you’ll see on the site to promote civic tech initiatives for a more robust democracy is a smartphone sending a text message from a government agency to someone who just lost their job. The text connects them with services and helps them toward their next steps.
ClientComm, which focuses on paroled individuals, is working with a similar principle. To address recidivism, probation officers in Salt Lake County in Utah have used ClientComm to connect hundreds of parolees and parole officers, both of which can have challenges staying in touch. Parolees can lack a stable place to live or employment situation, while parole officers often carry heavy case loads.
ClientComm keeps track of changing parolee phone numbers and delivers automated reminders for court dates and other appointments.
“Case managers know the best way to keep their clients compliant with the terms of their probation is to check in with them often, remind them of their commitments, and help them with problems that arise. Stakes are high — if they don’t comply with probation, they may go to jail,” reads a ClientComm description on the Code for America site.
Laws for when a convicted felon can regain the right to vote vary by state, but a reduction in recidivism could alter the makeup of the U.S. electorate. More than six million U.S. citizens today have lost the ability to vote due to a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project.
Late last year, the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency released an Alexa skill, becoming one of the first major cities in the United States to do so. The initial version told Angelinos about holiday events, but it has since grown to include more community events and information about the L.A. City Council. Ultimately, the city wants to connect its 311 non-emergency services to Alexa so residents can do things like report graffiti or a pothole or call non-emergency police.
Several cities are now using intelligent assistants to provide a service of some kind. The City of Las Vegas Alexa skill can also tell you about city council meetings. The early voice app ecosystem for Google Assistant also has a series of city services available, from Seattle pool times to garbage pickup times in Auburn, Alabama, and public transit assist apps for Singapore, San Francisco, London, and other large metropolitan areas.
In late May, Twilio’s Impact Fund awarded $1 million in grants to a series of nonprofits and organizations to support messaging for emergency dispatch services and a range of projects to support people underrepresented in tech. Also among recipients were Democracy Works, which uses SMS to send voter registration and election date info to users, and OpenGov Foundation, which connects lawmakers with constituents for chat conversations.