This New Mobile Tool is Redefining the Power Of Petitions

Internet activism has made its mark, but mobile petitioning “is the next frontier for organizing," says Carina Molnar, a senior strategist at Purpose.

The emergence of e-activism is nothing new. In 2011, we saw Change.org help to halt the public flogging of a Saudi Arabian woman who was charged for driving a relative to the hospital during the country’s driving ban on women. The next year, more than 50 million viewers brought Joseph Kony’s humanitarian abuses to the spotlight on YouTube. But while these online campaigns gained considerable traction and results, only a third of the world uses the Internet, and these online campaigns have largely been orchestrated by members of the developed and developing world.

Meanwhile, 75% of the world has access to mobile phones. /Crowdring, a digital petitioning platform that transforms phone calls into digital signatures, is expanding the e-campaigning paradigm. An project of /The Rules, an online movement dedicated to re-enfranchising people and changing the rules of governance, /Crowdring is building momentum to impart change in potentially larger numbers and more ways than Internet campaigns will achieve.

Inspired by a successful petitioning campaign that moved the Indian Parliament to establish an anti-corruption agency, /Crowdring and one of its strategists, Carina Molnar, are creating an open-source digital petitioning platform where anybody with a mobile phone will be able to call a local number and turn that into a digital signature. The Indian campaign, spearheaded by Ghandi-like activist Anna Hazare, garnered 35 million signatures, which began as “missed calls.” These intentionally dropped calls are trending in emerging economies where rates are expensive, so instead of texting or calling someone, which incurs charges, the caller will dial and drop to relay a message.

“We’re using a language that already exists and [are] disrupting it in new ways,” explained Molnar in a phone interview. Indeed, /Crowdring’s web and mobile prototypes aim to utilize the missed call model as a petitioning platform for a myriad of issues. For example, an activist might launch a campaign to preserve ecologically vulnerable land in the Amazon, and ask participants to dial into a toll-free local number. Those numbers can then be presented to decision makers at a global environmental summit as digital signatures.

“There are cultural specifics that are going to make this relevant in a myriad of different ways,” said Molnar. She envisions the platform being used for disease mapping and election monitoring on top of social justice issues, where its foundations lie. /Crowdring is potentially being used in an anti-gun violence campaign in Rio De Janeiro, and plans to expand its knowledge and user base in Nairobi and Bangalore in coming months.

But while mobile activism is undoubtedly flourishing, it comes with a trove of hurdles specific to mobile technolgy. One of the biggest challenges for organizations like /Crowdring, is to keep up with telecom regulations and shifts in APIs (application programming interfaces) — all across different countries and policy climates.

“We’re taking it day by day in each one of these launch markets,” Molnar said. “We really want to see: Does this thing have legs? Does this tool stand up to the global vision?”

Aside from the technological hurdles, part of answering that question involves determining whether “missed calls” hold the same weight as paper or Internet signatures. When I asked a current student at the Indian School of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore what he thought of the missed call model and e-activism, Pushkar Gireesh Banakar took issue to the fact that there is no way of verifying whether the missed calls-turned-digital signatures are coming from real people.

“It does not really help an audience understand whether a political candidate, for example, has used true or dubious means to showcase the strength of his followers,” Banakar wrote in an email.

But as the Hazare movement proved, mobile marketers have developed software that maintains and records missed calls, just like ISPs (Internet service providers) can track IP addresses. Unnati Desai, the data manager for Hazare’s campaign, explained to the Times of India that her team manually checked missed call records to ensure that there were no duplicates.

In addition to accountability, user security is clearly a challenge for mobile petitioning platforms. So far, /Crowdring has partnered with software companies like ThoughtWorks to tackle interface issues, and one of their risk priorities is to ensure user privacy through password hashing. /Crowdring also has a plan to verify mobile campaign protocols through an independent third-party organization. 

Perhaps the most compelling bit of the mobile petitioning model is its potential to reach and empower more people on a hyper-grassroots level, yet make an impact at a global level. Some might criticize the “slactivist” approach — an arguably passive means of engagement — by simply clicking a link or calling a number. But in many cases, a removed approach is the safer alternative, especially when campaigns revolve around contentious issues like gay rights.

However people choose their campaigns on /Crowdring, Molnar and the team are interested in giving people back a sense of political agency.

“Everybody has a voice. It’s a matter of them being amplified.”

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Yumi Araki

Yumi Araki is studying politics at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and was previously an editorial intern at Talking Points Memo and the associate producer at a documentary company specializing in covering science, technology and medicine. She is also a writer and digital storyteller who has published pieces in her hometown of Tokyo, her dream hometown of London, and her current home in Boston. Visit her at www.yumiaraki.com.

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