Want To Stay On Top Of Your Political Activism? There Are Some Apps For That

Online service launches a collection of tools to automate collecting information about and organizing political causes and events.

Want To Stay On Top Of Your Political Activism? There Are Some Apps For That
Photo: Flickr user Ted Eytan

The travel ban, the Obamacare repeal, “A Day Without A Woman,” Russian hacking—keeping up with politics is overwhelming right now. And it can be hard to know how to take action most effectively, whether you’re a progressive or a conservative. A San Francisco company called IFTTT is offering a solution: Online apps that automate the process, such as creating an email digest of tweets from Women’s March organizers or posting the Senate’s daily agenda to a Slack channel. The company just introduced a suite of tools, called applets, for causes on the political left and right.

“We kind of seed the platform with ideas sometimes,” says IFTTT’s co-founder and CEO Linden Tibbets. IFTTT created nine new applets, and highlighted a few older ones, as teasers pointing people to big collections already on the service and, the company hopes, encouraging political junkies to build more of them.

If you haven’t heard of IFTTT (which is an abbreviation for “if this, then that”), here’s the gist: It’s an online service that helps users by getting other online tools to work together in the case of a trigger event. For example, if you’re interested in a certain piece of legislation, as soon as it’s published on Congress.gov, the text could be posted in a Slack channel you share with other activists. “If someone wants to turn on the lights when Donald Trump signs an executive order, well, they can,” says Tibbets.

IFTTT started in 2010, providing a point-and-click tool for non-techies to use the application programing interfaces (APIs) that companies like Google provide for app developers to access its services. Since then, IFTTT has struck deals with over 400 companies and organizations to integrate their services into its platform. Services could be anything from weather forecasts via Weather Underground to control of the Nest online thermostat. Those two might make a good pairing, in fact. (Fast Company named IFTTT one of the most innovative companies in 2014, 2015, and 2017.)

IFTTT has seen an uptick in users creating these if-then applets around political issues—and using scripts created by others, like the nonprofit news organization ProPublica. It has created 33 applets, such as saving a summary of newly-signed laws to bookmarking service Pocket, or one called “When Congress schedules a vote, scream at me in a robot voice IMMEDIATELY.” The triggers (the “ifs”) are generally RSS feeds that go out when a web site publishes a new article or post.

“We saw ProPublica, [their] service had a huge spike…on Nov 9 of people signing up to be more informed about these ideas and about knowing when bills are about to be scheduled or when they will be signed into law,” says Anne Mercogliano, IFTTT’s VP of marketing. Some user-created applets are more whimsical. One, for financial app Qapital, saves money toward a user’s goal every time that Donald Trump tweets.

IFTTT says it wants to encourage all political persuasions to take part. As an example, it created both liberal and conservative-oriented applets. One, for example, sends a smartphone alert when the Sierra Club publishes an update about its activities. Another applet produces a weekly summary of lobbying activities by the National Rifle Association.

“We think activism is about something that is left and right. We want to be neutral about who can build on the platform,” says Tibbets. As long as companies and organizations follow its terms of service—for example, no hate speech—they are welcome.

Additional prominent news and nonprofit organizations will be debuting as partners on IFTTT soon, says Tibbets. He declines to name them, saying it’s up to the partners to make those announcements. One goal of all this, he says, is to help people find their own information and make up their own mind. “Our internet, even thought it’s grown in size, it feels more closed in a way. It feels really easy to get caught in your echo chamber of choice, or of non-choice,” says Tibbets.

About the author

Sean Captain is a technology journalist and editor. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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