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DSC Tech Library

Political Voice Broadcasting

IVR systems interactive voice response This section of our technical library presents information and documentation relating to Voice Broadcasting systems and Auto Dialer software and products, particularly how these products and services relate to political calling campaigns. The PACER and Wizard phone systems are PC based call center phone systems that are recognized as premier inbound and outbound computer telephony systems. Features such as automatic call distribution (ACD), interactive voice response (IVR) and call recording have added a new dimension to the predictive dialer and auto dialer capabilities of these systems. These computer based dialing systems can perform various types of auto dialing campaigns simultaneously. These types include Predictive Dialing, Progressive Dialing, Preview Dialing and Dial on Demand.

The following article relates to technology and political activism.

Using Cell Phones in Advocacy

Reprint: NP Action

NPAction is an online resource that provides tools and information for nonprofit advocacy. It provides a constantly updated mix of information and tools, drawn from the expertise of organizations and seasoned advocates across a wide range of advocacy activities and policy disciplines, in order to encourage greater participation by nonprofits in the policy arena.

For those who can still remember the dark ages before the Internet (and even before the fax), the telephone was one of the most important tools in an advocate's arsenal. People organized using phone trees, and organizations raised awareness of issues by calling other groups. While many of these activities have largely been replaced by email and web pages, the rise of cellular technology has given telephone organizing another breath of life. The examples of cell phone advocacy in this article demonstrate the potential this technology has for low cost, effective communications in an advocacy campaign.


As cell phones become ubiquitous, often replacing wired phones entirely (especially among younger generations), their use in organizing and advocacy has increased dramatically. In many countries, they are a primary organizing tool, especially in places where cellular technology has leapfrogged traditional telecommunications. There are an increasing number of impoverished countries that never developed a wired phone system where cell phones are becoming commonplace, even in villages that have little electricity and no hope of Internet access. In fact, the most dramatic uses of cellular technology in changing policy have not occurred in the United States or Western Europe.

First Uses

In the early stages of the cellular revolution, cell phones were basically a convenience, even when used in an advocacy context. Someone at a legislative hearing could call back to the office during a quick intermission and report on a bill, helping mobilize support or opposition early. But this is not much different than the classic scenes in old movies where reporters in fedoras run to a bank of payphones to call in a breaking news item. Use of cell phones in organizing has become more important as the popularity of cell phones increased and their associated costs have gone down. Now several advocates armed with cell phones could communicate while canvassing a neighborhood or visiting Congressional offices.

The first real breakthrough in using cell phones for advocacy came in organizing demonstrations, although the phones still served as glorified walkie-talkies. If even a handful of people involved in a demonstration had cell phones, information could be passed very efficiently from the leaders to the demonstrators, and vice versa.

One of the most widely reported examples of this use was the series of protests surrounding the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. The mostly young protesters were part of the country's most plugged-in demographic, and many of them had brought their cell phones to the protest with them. The phones were used to coordinate demonstrations, and because a critical threshold of participants had cell phones, demonstrators could react to changes in the protest plan with astonishing quickness. These protests also showed a more subversive side of using cell phones for organizing - their relative privacy. Police were not able to listen in on conversations between protest leaders and protesters on the streets, which meant protesters, were able to avoid police. Protesters were also able to speak to the press while in the thick of the protests, and if needed, call their lawyers.

This is not to say that cell phones were the answer to all logistical problems in demonstrations. The main problem with using cell phones solely as mobile telephones is a severe limit on the number of people that can communicate at once. Most of the time, one person has to call another person, who then calls a third person, not unlike the phone trees that organizers have been using seemingly since the beginning of time. Even the briefest exchange still takes a relatively long time, especially when compared to a brief email or instant message. This began to change with the increasing use of non-voice cellular phone tools, such as text messaging.

Email on Your Phone: The Rise of Text Messaging

One of the limits of using cellular phones in organizing and lobbying is that they have traditionally been a one-to-one technology (although using traditional conference calling services is possible). This is beginning to change. Over the past few years, there has been a tremendous rise in "text messaging," which is a sort of computer-less email where short text messages are sent between phones. Users are able to type a short message (usually limited to around 150 characters) using their phone's keypad, and send it directly to another phone, or other connected device. This technology also allows messages to be sent to and from properly connected computers (which will become important below).

The United States has lagged behind Europe and Asia in the pervasiveness of cell phones and especially text messaging, which is why few innovations in the use of text messaging have occurred in the U.S. Some of the first uses of text messaging in advocacy were in several anti-government protests, most notably in the Philippines in January 2001.

Thousands of protestors who were critical of a halt in Philippine President Joseph Estradaźs impeachment trial were able to coordinate their actions almost instantly through text messages. If, for example, an official of Estrada's government was seen at a meeting somewhere, hundreds of protesters could be summoned almost instantly by passing along short text messages. During several days of intense protests, text message traffic in the Philippines more than doubled from 30 million messages a day the month before to 70 million a day during the protests (in a country of 85 million). In the end, the intense protests caused the Supreme Court to declare Estrada's presidency void, and he was removed from office. Similar cell phone based organizing was used by supporters of the two main candidates in the 2004 Philippine elections.

A more recent example is the Ukrainian "Orange Revolution" that took place in the late 2004. text messages allowed thousands, then hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians to gather in protest against the result of the country's November presidential election, in which the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, lost despite a 10 percent lead in exit polls. In a turn of events strikingly similar to the Philippine protests discussed above, the massive protests led to the country's Supreme Court to declare the election void, leading to a re-vote under heavy international scrutiny. Yushchenko won. While it would be an exaggeration to say that text messages were responsible for Yushchenko's election (protesters remained outdoors in the capitol for weeks) one United Press International story on the protests states that the new election "probably would not have happened were it not for mobile phone technologies."

While most text messages are sent from one phone to another, there is increasing use of text messaging to send messages to a central receiver (like voting for American Idol contestants via text message), or from a central sender to many phones (increasingly used to send text-message advertising or even spam to many users at once). As this technology improves, it will increasingly be able to use the equivalent of email lists, allowing one person to quickly send a message to many people's phones at once, something not possible using voice technology. This change will have a huge impact on organizing and advocacy via text messages because it essentially makes email lists portable. Think of how much of your advocacy communications are done via email lists, either by advocacy alerts or discussion lists. Now, imagine if you could send a text message to the phones of hundreds of your members at once, saying simply "press SEND to be connected to your senator's office and tell him to vote yes on our bill." While this technology is still in its infancy, People for the American Way has done exactly that in the May 2005 fight over the filibuster.

Cutting-Edge Uses: Mass Immediate Response, Virtual Call Centers, and Instant Petitions

People for the American Way (PFAW), one of the many groups working to preserve the filibuster of judicial appointees in the spring of 2005, came up with a novel way to adapt mass-text-messaging software used by business to their advocacy campaign (largely through the efforts of a volunteer in their New York office). This technology, called "Mass Immediate Response," allows users to sign up online for a cell phone text message alert that would be sent the moment a vote on ending the filibuster was announced on the floor of the Senate. The goal was to have thousands of people flooding the Senate with phone calls demanding the preservation of the filibuster moments after a vote to end it was introduced on the floor.

PFAW sent out emails about a week before the vote was anticipated, directing people to a web site where they could enter their name, address, and cell phone number. Once the Mass Immediate Response was triggered, everyone would be sent a message alerting them that a vote ending the filibuster had been formally introduced on the Senate floor, and allowed them to simply hit "reply" (or something similar, depending on phone model) to be connected to the appropriate Senate office. The system allowed for the grouping of callers depending on their state, and in this case, callers from nine key states were to be directly connected to one of their Senators' offices, while the rest of the group were to be distributed to other offices and Senate leadership. The technology also allows, in theory, everyone who signed up to be connected with one of their Senators' offices (automatically distributing them between the two). Since timing is key, the system also paces callers so that, for example, ten callers are not connected to the Majority Leader's office at one time, with nine of them getting a busy signal. Lastly, the system is able to track the activity levels generated by each group of callers, so adjustments can be made.

According to Josh Hilgart of People for the American Way, approximately 17,000 people signed up for the alerts, which they considered a respectable number for an unfamiliar and untested technology. The cost to the organization was comparatively low, since they bought blocks of text messages that broke down to several cents a call. While more expensive than email alerts, PFAW was able to bridge the gap between sending an email alert asking people to call their legislators and increasing the chances that the calls are made. By simply pressing "reply", participants could connect directly to the correct policymaker for a short phone call.

Because a Senate floor vote on the filibuster was avoided by a bipartisan compromise, the Mass Immediate Response was not triggered. PFAW plans to use the system for Senate approval votes for judicial nominees in the future. Everyone who signed up for the filibuster response was sent a message offering the chance to opt in or out of future actions.

The ease of using a system similar to PFAW's is not without its risks. One potential problem for using text messages to get out alerts is one already faced by email action alerts, namely that there are far too many of them. Most advocates get numerous email alerts from multiple organizations daily, and very soon it becomes a chore to weed out which ones they should actually respond to. While PFAW should be commended for a very limited and responsible use of this technology, if advocates are someday getting ten MIR alerts a day, the effectiveness of the alerts will be greatly diminished.

Phone Banks With Cell Phones: Using Free Minutes Wisely

Another innovative use of cell phones is a kind of instant campaign phone bank. used this innovative idea to bring people together to form impromptu volunteer call centers for progressive candidates in the 2004 elections. The basic concept is that a volunteer host invites a group of people over to their house on a weekend afternoon (to take advantage of free weekend airtime minutes) with their cell phones to call voters in battleground states and encourage them to vote for candidates that (and presumably the callers themselves) support.

The technological innovation behind this concept is on the computers of, but would not be possible without the widespread use of cellular phones. After registering on the site, a personalized home page is created for each host. It contains phone numbers of likely voters, and several scripts for the callers to use. As calls are made at the gathering, the host reports back the numbers called and how the calls went. Any numbers that were not used, or where there was no answer, are re-entered back into the system to be called at another time. The major innovation of this concept is that it harnesses the energy of volunteers to take care of an expensive but necessary campaign activity. By widely distributing required calls, it makes the size of each phone bank extremely flexible. In fact, after registering, an individual could theoretically access the site and make single calls whenever time permits, simply getting one number at a time from a constantly updated database.

The One Campaign: Concerts and Advocacy

Yet another interesting new use of cellular technology is being used by the One campaign, which is a coalition of entertainers and politicians trying to increase the United States' spending on worldwide development to one percent of the federal budget. One of the major supporters of the campaign is the band U2, who play a promotion for the One campaign during their concerts (not coincidentally, while they play their ballad "One"). The promotion asks concertgoers to text message their name to the campaign's number. They are sent back a confirmation message asking them to visit the campaign's website. This is a very innovative and very public way to quickly add large numbers of signatories to the One campaign's petition, especially because U2 usually plays to sold-out stadiums.


As cellular phones become less like convenient phones, and more like small, mobile computers, their uses in advocacy will undoubtedly increase. New innovations, like phones capable of taking and sending video clips, will undoubtedly become useful tools for advocates looking to get their message out. Other technologies in development that will allow users to get data about their surroundings and even other people that they are near might help with the quick formation of impromptu coalitions. As with all technologies, it is somewhat foolish to predict how people will be using cellular phones in advocacy in five years, because there will undoubtedly be new uses and technologies that nobody could have seen coming.