Missed calls are a popular way of communicating in poorer countries. “Beeping”–where a caller deliberately drops a connection before the other person picks up–lets people message for free, without using their minutes, following pre-arranged code. For example, a missed call might signal a friend is running late, or that someone is waiting at a certain spot.
Beeping started as social trick. But it’s since become a tool for political organizing. In 2011, the Indian social activist Anna Hazare used missed calls to great effect as he pressured the Indian parliament to pass a long-delayed anti-corruption bill. Thirty five million people “miss-called” a number to show their support (by comparison, only about 80,000 had sent paid text messages).
The question now is what other situations miscalling might be useful for. Is this low-cost technique a way of connecting up previously unconnected folks across the Global South? That’s something that Alnoor Ladha (a Co.Exist contributor) and his colleagues at the The Rules, a New York-based campaigning group, are testing. They’ve developed a system, called Crowdring, that makes missed call campaigns easier to implement, and they’re showing the technique has great potential to reach the previously unreachable.
The Hazare campaign was highly successful in drumming up support, but the activists, being unprepared, weren’t able to make best use of it. They were inundated with a flood of numbers, and didn’t respond to organize their new supporters until weeks after the fact. “They were overwhelmed,” says Ladha. “We learned that missed calls are a great thing, but there are a lot of logistical challenges involved.”
Crowdring is open-source software that’s available on GitHub, and it helps in two main ways. First, The Rules has made arrangements with about 80 phone carriers around the world to run missed-call campaigns. Organizations can go on the Crowdring platform, type in the countries where they want to operate, and get preassigned numbers for use in publicity. They can take advantage of pre-negotiated texting rates, and know that participants won’t be charged either for the call, or for receiving a campaign message after they’ve done the missed-call trick.
Second, Crowdring manages the incoming numbers, and lets campaigners target texts to certain towns, cities, or regions. “You can see where people are calling from, then you can type in a text message and it blasts out to all the people in your database,” Ladha says.
Earlier this year, The Rules, which focuses on wealth inequality issues, raised more than $15,000 on Kickstarter to run its first campaigns. It was heavily involved in this summer’s protests in Kenya over proposals to raise taxes on staple foods. About 210,000 people miss-called its numbers (serving as a sort of petition signature by proxy), and the government eventually changed course. Ladha is now planning a 12-country campaign against the World Bank over land rights, and further activism around tax inequality and tax havens. The Rules sees itself as a “post-aid” development group, challenging what it calls the “architecture of wealth extraction” in poorer countries. It criticizes more traditional development groups for treating the symptoms of poverty, instead of its root causes.
Mobile phones, in general, are key to its efforts. “In the Global South, Internet penetration is tiny, even in India, which is thought of as technologically advanced,” Ladha says. “Mobile is ubiquitous and it doesn’t require expensive hardware or software.” The platform of a basic dumb phone is more democratic, in other words. And, missed-calling, being free, could be the most democratic tool of all.