Calling for Change: Meet John Emerson, the Creator of LobbyPhone

 

LobbyPhone is an SMS bot you can text to get a short list of your representatives and their phone numbers. It’s a great, fast way to get in touch with your national and state representatives. It takes just a couple minutes and doesn’t require an internet connection. Try LobbyPhone by texting (520) 200-2223 with your zip code or postal address.

John Emerson created this tool to provide Americans with quick access to the people they elected, so they could call and voice their concerns any time. He wrote about his inspiration and process for the project in more detail on his blog.

LobbyPhone SMS tool for calling your reps

Text LobbyPhone your address and it will text you back your reps

Burner + LobbyPhone

Since LobbyPhone’s release last year, we’ve been working with John in two ways.

First, we moved the text message system over to Burner’s infrastructure to lower his costs to provide the service.

Secondly, we built a web app to allow you to use his tool to look up your reps, and then save them to your Burner contacts. If you don’t have Burner yet, you can create a free sample when you use LobbyPhone. You can try it at go.lobbyphone.com.

We sat down with John to reflect on the tool’s impact and what’s next for him.

On Getting the Word Out

Lex: How did you get the word to people when you first launched LobbyPhone?

John: The original inspiration for the bot was a post on an email discussion list of progressive techies. I put together the initial bot in a day and announced it to the list. The response was super enthusiastic and people asked if they could share it. They started sharing it on Facebook even before I did and it just kind of grew. People were sharing it within their networks, particularly around the time of the confirmation hearings last year. It was interesting to see it go through different social circles: there was a young adult novelist who tweeted it and then a couple of other novelists in that circle retweeted it. Then a couple celebrities tweeted it. I saw these two enormous spikes of activity. I was thrilled when I was getting 10-20 people texting the number a day. I thought wow, I built something that people are using. But at its height it got 22,000 texts in a single day, which was extraordinary. This is also when I was still paying for it all out of pocket so it was a bit of a panic.

Lex: Oh no! It’s too effective!

John: Right, right. The good news is people love your product — the bad news is people love your product! I sent out a crowdfunding appeal to friends and family and the response was amazing. I had never passed the hat like this before. Then I was able to secure an 800 text number from Plivo which allowed me to put the URL [of the GoFundMe] into the outbound texts. Suddenly people I did not know personally were contributing to defray my costs. Donations ranged from five dollars to two hundred dollars. Total strangers left comments on the GoFundMe page like, “This is great! I love this!" It was really an amazing outpouring.

LobbyPhone on the Web

LobbyPhone on the web - find your reps online

 

“It's just shy of half a million texts since I launched it which is amazing to me.”

 

On LobbyPhone’s Impact

John: Mostly, I think people have been using it for federal contacts but a couple state level campaigns have been using it as well. There was a Humane Society action in Alabama I saw on Facebook. They were using it for people to contact their state reps. At the national level there’s a Capitol Hill switchboard number you can call to reach your reps but the same thing doesn't really exist for every state.

Once I got an email from the wife of a state legislator. She said, "Can you please take our home office number off of your system? We're getting all these calls at all hours of the night." At that point, I switched the state API from Google Civic to OpenStates which had the correct number to use. But you know, I never knew if people were actually making the phone calls so this was actually a confirmation of that. It’s not how I wanted to do it, but it was good to know nonetheless.

I also heard from a state legislator in Texas whose ranch was at the edge of an unusually shaped district. He was getting the wrong info from the bot so I tweaked the code a little bit and got it working. He was thrilled and said he was going to send [the LobbyPhone number] to all his constituents.

Since then, it's been a nice steady hum. About 100 people a day are texting the number for the last month or two. Other tools have come up since I launched, like Resistbot which lets you send a fax via text number so you don't actually have to call anyone, and CallParty which works on Facebook Messenger. LobbyPhone is just shy of half a million texts since I launched it which is amazing to me.

Lex: Why do you think your SMS bot struck a chord so strongly with people?

John: I don't know. It’s not hard to find contact info other ways. There’s always that guy on Facebook who points out, "Actually, you can just Google it." But LobbyPhone removed a step and you get the numbers right on your phone. It’s personalized. It's free. It was novel.

LobbyPhone in your Burner contacts

When you use LobbyPhone with Burner, you can save them to your Contacts

 

“This kind of low tech service has had a resurgence. As smartphones are getting smarter and faster, texting has become more popular.”

 

On What’s Next for LobbyPhone

Lex: I know you're quite involved in the civic tech space. Have you thought about other ways to engage people with LobbyPhone?

John: Yes, I have. I think one of the reasons why it's particularly popular is there's no commitment. You're not signing up to get a daily action. It's not telling you what to do. It's more of a utility. The advantage of that is that it’s very flexible. Different people can use it for different campaigns. The downside is that I'm not sure where else to take it. I looked into building a Facebook Messenger version, but this already exists. I'm not keeping people's information so I'm not using this to build a movement. That's one possible direction, but I would set up a different system to do that.

When LobbyPhone was at its peak volume and running up my costs I was desperately looking for a non-profit to take it over. I talked to some folks but they wanted to keep people’s info to build their lists. It's a funny sort of dance and it never quite came together.

On What’s Next in Civic Tech

Lex: What’s next for you in the civic tech space?

John: Independent of this project, I have some other ideas for text services. Text is a great way to interact with people that are not always on the internet. Service workers or caregivers, for instance. I worked with a NGO that works with the Nepali community in New York City. Their members are not in front of a computer all day and may not own a desktop computer. But they have their smartphones and there's a lot of word of mouth. I’d love to build tools for communities like these, either for specific campaigns or kind of a crisis text line. I'd love to do more help lines, more mass mobilization, or more utilities. It's funny that this kind of low tech service has had such a resurgence. As smartphones are getting smarter and faster, texting has become more popular.


You can find John on Twitter @backspace and on his website at backspace.com. You can find LobbyPhone at lobbyphone.com or by texting your address to (520) 200-2223. If you’d like to donate to the project, you can still do so at gofundme.com/smsbot.

If you’d like to use LobbyPhone with your Burner number, you can go to go.lobbyphone.com. You can also create a Burner number from there after you find your reps.