Textizen, Public Engagement using Telecom APIs

TextizenI had the good fortune to talk with Serena Wales, CTO of Textizen, about how they are using SMS to encourage people to be more involved in their communities, non-profits and local government.  Textizen uses SMS because of its ubiquity to engage people through surveys, over 90% of Americans have text.

Textizen began at a Code for America event.  Code for America is a non-partisan, non-political organization founded in 2009 to bring web-industry professionals to work with city governments in the United States in order to promote openness, participation, and efficiency in municipal governments.

Several Code for America fellows were working with the City of Philadelphia at that time.  The Planning Commission ran public meetings, but the people who can attend an in-person meeting at a certain time and certain place are not always representative of the communities affected by the department’s decisions.  They needed to find a way of more broadly engaging the communities impacted.  Hence Textizen came into existence, enabling local government, non-profits and communities to reach anyone with a minute and an opinion, by text.  We really do underestimate the reach, immediacy, and simplicity of SMS in our daily lives.  Textizen is a great example of the power of SMS.

Textizen is designed expressly for the needs of cities and local organizations as its accessible to anyone, 90% of Americans have text. It enables open participation to people from any geography and demographic.  The Textizen engine collects structured data or open ideation, to inform any decision-making need.  And promotes sustained engagement, as people who respond can be sent project updates, event reminders, or follow-up surveys to build a more informed, more connected constituency — one text at a time.

Here’s a simple use case.  The urban planning department is thinking about making a change in a community, it can put up adverts on the bus shelters about the plan, which include a question and asks for replies by SMS to a LOCAL number.  This is key, people are wary of sending SMS to short codes because of charges and SPAM, while a local long number results in more responses.  So instead of a few tens of people in a town planning meeting, Textizen enables the local planning dept. to reach hundreds if not thousands of opinions and create a sustain engagement

I asked Serena how she became aware of Telecom APIs.  “It was thanks to Mark Headd, Chief Data Officer at City of Philadelphia who is also involved in Code for America.  When we were looking at this problem he pointed us to the Tropo API.  And we realized just how easy it was to use text to engage people.”

On how Textizen is growing, “Our focus is working with local governments, non-profits and communities to solve everyday problems around engagement.  We provide access to our platform and work with the groups on design, promotion and analysis of the surveys.  The Textizen platform can be used in many ways, in meetings people can now ask questions and respond in real-time with the phones.  No expensive audience survey equipment, just use the ubiquity of mobile phones and the Textizen engine.”

On advice given Serena’s experience, “Telecom APIs are both easy to use and immensely powerful.  We are only limited by our imagination in the ways communications can be used to create deeper engagement across communities.  We’re rolling out Textizen across the US, and will happily work with organizations that want to help us expand the benefits for Textizen in other countries.”