/Crowdring: A Low-Tech Solution to Worldwide Problems

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According to a report put out by the U.N. earlier this year, 6 billion out of the world’s 7 billion people have mobile phones. To put that in perspective, only 4.5 billion people in the world have access to sanitary toilets. While access to internet is limited, having a mobile phone is becoming an increasingly essential part of being able to function in society in developing nations. People depend on these basic mobile phones to run their entire lives, including their businesses and social experiences.

But with phone and SMS rates as expensive as they are, a peculiar cultural practice has developed around the idea of “missed calls.” So what is a missed call?

Just dial the number of the person or company you are trying to reach, wait for it to ring once, and then hang up. That’s a missed call—and in developing nations across the world, it has become an increasingly common form of mobile communication. Think of it as a quick, completely free way of pinging or paging someone. In a report by GigaOM, the cultural practice is described in this way:

“Imagine you want to use your cellphone to, say, order take-out food but you don’t want to pay for making the call, or a text message. The answer to that ultra-low cost question is India’s fascinating growth of the “missed call” ecosystem.” In India in particular, missed calls—sometimes lovingly referred to as “beeps” or “flashes”—have even convinced tech startups and Google India to begin implementing them into their services.

But a social justice organizattion called The Rules thinks these missed calls can be used for more than just ordering food or telling somebody you’ve arrived. They think these missed calls have the power to change the world.

“One of the basic principles of political organizing is getting people to take some kind of low barrier action—signing a petition online or in the old days, writing a letter. Part of the reasoning behind that is to start people out on a political journey that will eventually result in getting them to take more high barrier actions down the line,” says Alnoor Ladha, the executive director and founding member of the The Rules. “So when we first discovered “missed calls”—which is a very common behavior in any place where there is free outbound calls—we started trying to figure out a way to use that to get people to rally behind important social causes.”

Missed Calls in Action

In 2011, as many as 40 Indian whistleblowers were assaulted and at least 12 were killed. With figureheads such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden leading the charge against government secrecy and corruption in the eye of the public, the West knows a thing or two about whistleblowers. While bloated governments such as these are certainly known for their secrecy, the protection of whistleblowers and the struggle against government corruption is not merely a Western problem.

This struggle in India culminated in April of 2011 when a longtime activist Anna Hazare—who could only be called “Ghandian” in nature—led a hunger strike on the historic Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. The terms of Hazare and his large group of protesters were simple, but ambitious: regulate government corruption and protect whistleblowers in India. Hazare and his supporters attempted to pressure the Parliament of India to pass an anti-corruption bill called Jan Lokpal that would put an end to the barricade against information in India for good.

After 98 hours of fasting, it worked.

The government of India eventually gave in to the demands of the movement and formed a joint committee to create and pass the bill. Hazare himself was even invited to be a part of the committee. And while the 2011 Indian Anti-Corruption Movement would go down as one of Time’s Top 10 News Stories of 2011 and change the the laws of India forever, one of the biggest revelations from the campaign came in the way Hazare claimed his support.

Hazare initially asked the people of India to send a text message to a certain local phone number to show support for the movement. Hazare received 80,000 SMS text messages in support. He then got the idea of setting the barrier of entry even lower—just send a “missed call” to show support for the cause and your voice will be heard. Hazare received 35 million missed calls in support of the protest and the bill.

This moment in history is what convinced The Rules that a barrier of entry as quick as a five-second phone call and as inexpensive as free, might have the power to change the world—to “change the rules”—as their tagline goes.

An Open Source, Low-Tech, Grassroots Platform

“If you’re trying to organize rich people in the north, the internet is a great tool. If you’re trying to organize the world’s majority—or the world’s poor—you have to use much more democratic tool,” says Ladha.

Earlier this year, The Rules launched a platform called Crowdring (stylized “/Crowdring”) to be that tool. The service creates a free way to sign petitions that are accessible to everyone. In the same way that Anna Hazare used the low barrier entry “missed calls” to show the support of the people, /Crowdring creates the infrastructure to make missed call petitions a sustainable model for real social change.

According to their Kickstarter page, /Crowdring takes care of “data aggregation, list cutting, and a cost-effective way to purchase local numbers” to empower leaders to effectively voice the opinion of the people. While the activist will need to login to the /Crowdring website and support it with a national ad campaign that gets the word out, those wanting to be involved with that campaign can do so with the simple mobile phone in their pocket. It is a way of putting resources and tools in the hands of activists, organizations, and policymakers in developing nations.

“We used Crowdring recently in our campaign in Kenya. Because missed calls—or “flashing”, as they call it in Kenya—is a very common behavior, Crowdring is able to be a tool that can effectively mobilize people across economic and geographic barriers,” says the Hakima Abbas, The Rules’ regional director in Africa. “We are working directly with people. Crowdring is a tool that belongs to others that is being used within a broader campaign. The messaging is coming from local communities, which is then feeding into a larger global campaign. This is what makes Crowdring an important tool in enabling mobilization.”

Crowdring was built by and for The Rules, but it is also completely open source. Right now it is primarily used as by The Rules and the many organizations it works with on the ground—but Ladha seemed optimistic about the tool’s ability to mobilize a wide range of people and organizations across the world.

As a way to prove that, The Rules turned to Kickstarter and raised over $15,000 to help launch their first campaigns with Crowdring. With this support they are looking to focus their efforts on three very different, but equally complex cities: Nairobi, Bangalore, and Rio. By working with organizations local to these cities, Ladha says The Rules are able to dive deep into the cultural, political, and legal systems of these locations. In order to take on the big systemic plagues of corruption and poverty, The Rules must take these relationships very seriously and in many ways, /Crowdring is a way of doing that.

A True 21st Century Movement?

Despite having the goal to be completely crowdfunded, The Rules is currently supported by a larger organization called Purpose. From pushing for LGBT rights to fighting cancer, Purpose runs on a gamut of political issues and places technology and social media at the center of their strategy: “Technology is unlocking transformational new forms of political participation and social engagement.” This is all done under the banner of creating what they call “21st century movements”—The Rules and /Crowdring being one of those. But Alnoor Ladha believes this new way of organizing themselves is what makes The Rules’ international reach possible, not the technology itself:

“When we call ourselves a 21st century movement, but not because it’s all about technology. It means we represent a new way of organizing people that is based on participation. Being a 21st century movement is about harnessing the power of ordinary citizens. Creating high-tech tools only creates barriers for people wanting to get involved,” he says.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Non-profit organizations have been using talk of grassroots fundraising and advocacy for years now. But the results haven’t always been great.

You don’t have to look too far to find examples of social causes that have fallen flat on their faces—causes that have had deep relationships with technology. Take first an organization like Invisible Children, whose incredible spike in popularity had a lot to do with social media and the viral-ready nature of their campaign videos—only to see that explosion of success backfire in a cloud of scandal and controversy. Or secondly, an effort like One Laptop Per Child, which spent a lot of money dropping tablets and laptops into villages without realizing that those devices haven’t exactly led to a revolution of formal education stateside either.

The Rules are an organization that could easily get lumped together with these other causes and social initiatives—they have the slick website, young staff, smart branding and social media-ready videos to be the next big thing. But Ladha sees them as being cut from a different cloth:

“One Laptop Per Child comes from a western, U.N., NDG kind of worldview that says that all we need to do is find a technocratic solution to the world’s problems and they will thank us for saving them,” he says. “The Kony campaign came from this same understanding of the world and of developing nations. It wasn’t really interested in the voice of the people on the ground and it had a very inaccurate political theory of change that was based on trying to militarize the Ugandan army to get their hands on this one bad guy Kony. Ultimately, it was just another American narrative that didn’t involve the people of northern Uganda.”

Ladha is quick to point the discussion back to the heart of what The Rules is all about: “A major conflict we have right now is understanding that technological infrastructure always changes. There are a larger, systemic problems that we are acutely aware of. Of every dollar of wealth made in the world, 93 cents of it goes to the top one percent. Capitalism and democracy are in conflict and capitalism always wins. These are political issues, not just technological issues. That’s where we need to focus.”

Here in the west, we love to imagine a world where increased access to fast wireless connections, laptops and smartphones means a more democratic, egalitarian world. While it can be hard to imagine for us, the future of democracy in the developing world might not depend on us bringing our advances in technology to India or to Kenya at all. In a culture that is increasingly technocratic, it’s easy to glance over the power of a low-tech solution like Crowdring.

But more than a new iPhone app, sending millions of laptops to Africa, a slick new YouTube campaign, or even raising a bunch of money for some social cause—sometimes the best way to see real change in the world is as simple as a missed call.