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Nick O’Neill

Tech For Active Resistance: 5 Calls

Sept 16, 2017 at 3pm


NICK: So I'm Nick. I'm your standard nerd. I am a software engineer, San Francisco, college dropout, all that good stuff. And I've talked to a lot of other people who are software here today. Maybe not really surprisingly to me. But I think they share my experience when they say... When I suggest that we're very often expected to do work that is about furthering either venture capital or the companies that we're a part of, as opposed to the users that we serve or the purpose that we are... That we ideally want to set out to do. And I've been very fortunate recently that I've been able to work on this thing that has a lot of purpose for me, called 5 Calls. So what is 5 Calls? If you don't know, 5 Calls is a website where you can go and we want you... We want to help you make contact with your representatives about issues that you care about. So you come to the website. And we have a list of issues on the left side. And if we've done our job correctly, at least one of these issues is really important to you. And hopefully the rest of them is stuff you've seen in the news this week. And this is actually maybe something that you don't realize how important it is, with the current media experience. You go in, and you get this 24-hour news cycle of spectacle. And all we do is we see scandal and not the stuff that we're supposed to be engaging with. Not the stuff that's important for us to understand. So that we can be a part of our legislative process. So that's what 5 Calls is supposed to be doing. We're supposed to be helping you get to know the little legislative stuff that is super important. If you were to call your representative today, and say you want to vote for impeachment, that's not gonna be something that's super effective in moving the legislative process forward, because there's really not anything on the ballot for impeachment right now.

NICK: My typical example for this is actually healthcare. For everybody. And unfortunately, or fortunately, rather, just on Wednesday, that was finally introduced by Bernie and 16 other co-sponsors. So that is an issue that is on the site right now, and it is something that somebody could potentially vote for in the future. So I highly suggest you go to 5 Calls and call about health care if that's something that you care about. So you're on 5, you pick an issue that you care about, and then we surface this description of what the issue is. A little detail so you can understand what's going on. We show you details for your representative. And the representative that shows up is... Can either be your House rep, it can be your two Senators, the committee office, the Department of Education. And this all depends on what part of the process the legislation is in. If it's just been introduced, maybe it's just your House rep. If it's been moved to the Senate, it's definitely your Senator. And keeping track of where all these pieces are and what is gonna be the most effective phone call for you to make is one of the hardest things for people to understand. When you're making this phone call, you want it to be to the person who is going to be taking action on this issue. The person who has that power at that moment, so that you can be effective there.

NICK: So we also provide this short script for you. Which has been sort of the mostly surprising part of the whole process, I guess. When people come to the site and they say, “You know, I came to 5 Calls and I used it for the first time, and you know, the thing that really helped me was this short little script.” And these are people that get on the phone and maybe don't know what to say to their representative. It's not a hard thing to do. Not a thing that people don't understand that they can do themselves. They need help. But if you don't know what it looks like first, you don't know what to expect, a short little script helps people understand what they're going to say and what the process looks like. So that was a little surprise for us. So you've done all these things, made your calls. The idea here is you're gonna come back to 5 Calls, you're gonna do this a couple times a week and you're gonna make your voice heard on the topics that you care about.

NICK: And we've been incredibly lucky that over the last couple months, since about January, more than 1.7 calls have been placed to Congress through 5 Calls about issues that people really, really care about. So I was just... I'm always floored when I say that number. We obviously built this thing to help people. But I don't think we ever expected it to be quite like it ended up being. So of course this is related to the 2016 election, right? Isn't anything these days? And the story goes that the primaries were over last year. It was the summer of 2016. And my partner Rebecca and I are making phone calls, phone banking in San Francisco. And we were lucky enough to get more involved and be able to go out for the last couple weeks for the campaign to work the campaign on the ground. And let me tell you, if 16-hour days in 90-degree heat is your idea of a good time, then campaigning is just for you! Actually, it's a lot of fun. It's an experience that everyone should have at some level. You don't have to do the... Go upend your life and move to another city for weeks at a time thing. We were getting bus loads of people from California into Las Vegas every weekend for the last couple of weeks. So this was the kind of thing that everyone can get involved in. And the national campaigns all sort of trickled down to the other campaigns. So even if you don't know all the local stuff, all the local people that are involved, if you work this upper level campaign, then you get to know all of the little stuff that happens further down the chain. And I had never worked an election for a particular candidate before. I had done local politics in San Francisco, where I paid attention to propositions. Do you have propositions here? We have this thing in San Francisco where we do 10 to 20 things about the city every six months or something. Some of them are totally absurd, but it's important that you understand them, because they affect the city that you live in. If you don't vote on them, then stupid shit passes and you're frustrated later on. So this was the first time I really worked a campaign. And really eye-opening, as to how the whole process comes together and works together.

NICK: Okay. So... There was this moment on the campaign. And it's November 8th. It's about midday. My wife and I are going from one campaign stop to another. We're making sure that people are getting out to vote. We're making sure that they have rides to the polls. And I took this picture as sort of a reminder to myself. We very much thought that this is still our thing to win. We were very confident in what we were doing. Which was obviously... So naive. But we were so confident and I took this picture as sort of like a victory picture for me. This was the culmination of all these weeks of work that we had done together. And I wanted to remember this. And in a way, it went from this thing that I thought would be a symbol of victory to me to being this turning point from... Me deciding what I wanted to spend my time working on. So that's where purpose comes into it. And when I say purpose, I mean... Working on the things that you want to spend your life doing. And I don't think anybody goes out of their way to work on things that they don't want to spend their life doing. But when we're making things, you want to think about how you're helping other people. And how you are... Whether or not you're really making that impact in other people's lives. And the moment this happens, the moment that really sticks out for me is the first moment that you get feedback from people. About what it is you're building. Right? And there are plenty of times -- trust me. I've built something, I've shown it to somebody else, I'm very proud of it, I've expected this grand response from people, and they've been like, “Meh.” And that's the moment that really sticks out for me as the time where... It's like make or break for you. Right?

NICK: So when we launched 5 Calls, and I saw launched, like it was this grand thing, but really we told some people on Twitter and mentioned it to our friends. This was a very low level, easy thing. After we launched, I knew that it was impacting people by some of the tweets that we would get. I got some tweets from people who I didn't know. I'm pretty sure none of my friends knew. They didn't mention me or the 5 Calls Twitter account or anything like that, but they said stuff like... I had never contacted my representative before. And I did it with this app and it was super easy. And the purpose of this was to help people make calls. And great. You know, we made a million of them. Fantastic. But to be part of the start of someone's civic career, to get them introduced into that... That's something that we could never have guessed that we were going to do. And it always blows me away when I get these tweets. Sometimes you're having a really terrible day and nothing works. Nothing is going right. And you get one of these tweets in, and it still makes a huge impact on me. It's still incredibly fantastic. Every time I see one.

NICK: So in hindsight, this feels very straightforward, right? Like, you're either working on something that is saving the world or you're working on something that is destroying it. But it's really not that clear. It's very, very much shades of grey. And it's very easy to deceive yourself into what you're working on, before you start working on it, that it is one of these things that is great, even though it's sort of meh or not great. And the hint that I use for myself is... Whenever I'm telling a friend about it, I'm working on something, and a friend is like, “Hey, what are you working on these days?” And I'm like, “Oh, well, it's this app.” And then I take a moment and I say, “It's a $20 chocolate-covered banana delivery app.” And at that very moment, that's like the one moment when I start to realize, “Oh, crap. Like, why am I spending my time working on this, when I could be working on something that impacts people's lives?” It's never ever really that clear up until that moment that you tell someone else about it. At least for me. So that's always my indication that either something that I'm working on is good or something that I'm working on is like, “Mmm... Why are you doing this?” I'm not a very good bullshit artist. So that's perhaps why I can't get away with telling my friends that I'm doing something very grand when it's not something that's very grand. And it's important to get to this point as early as possible. Because as soon as you get to this point, you can start testing out how effective your solution is. So getting there as quickly as possible.

NICK: When Kendra was talking yesterday about stringing some Google forms together so she [Affect Conf note: Kendra’s pronoun is “they”] could finally get people coming in to say, Is this helpful to people? That's absolutely amazing. Getting there as soon as possible is great, because then you can say: Is this effective for other people? And that's the second part of the equation. Right? So it's this great idea. Maybe we created 5 Calls and it was born only of our ideas and our brain and there was never any other influence from anything else. We're just geniuses. Obviously that's not the case. Right? So the story I tell here is that we're the list of things on the side of 5 Calls. It's got different topics that you can pick from. And it is of course not original. We would be working this campaign office, and people would come in and say, “I can't spend three hours coming into the office and phone banking. I just can't spare that time. What can I do to help out?” And the thing that really resonated with them is they could go to the site and use this tool where they could say, “I want to call voters in Virginia that care about health care. I want to call first time voters in Oregon that care about equal pay.” Right? And this really, really resonated with people. Because they really like the control of being able to pick out a specific thing or call a specific demographic of people that was really familiar to them. Something that they really loved to do. Right? So we obviously took this idea and we said... We want to build something that's policy-based, advocacy-based. We want people to be able to choose all of these things that they have, pick the thing that's most important to them, and call on the thing that they're comfortable talking about. So... This is actually the hardest part of 5 Calls.

NICK: The easiest part of 5 Calls is the technology stuff that I work on, because I can be as boring as possible and then I can go for a weekend to a conference like this, and everything keeps running. Right? My partner and her incredible volunteer staff of policy editors do all the hard work of keeping things up to date on the site, so that when you hear about something that really outrages you and you go to 5 to call on it, it's already there. So they just do an incredible job. So the other side of effectiveness is the people who are actually answering the phones in Congress. Or wherever you're calling. And that's one of these things that I probably would have done differently if we had had no experience. Because I wanted to look for this technical solution that didn't involve calling on the phones, because nobody likes calling on the phones. It's just not a thing that people like to do. But we have these friends on the campaign, and when we talk to them, saying we want to build this thing, we want to build something that connects you to your representative, these people came back and said, “Absolutely, 100%, you want to get people on the phones.” There is a spectrum of effort and impact. Goes all the way from zero or one, which is signing a petition, which doesn't do a whole lot, to 100, which is you're going into an office personally and talking to your representative yourself. And finding a middle ground there, where you're putting in a decent amount of effort, where they'll listen to you, they know you're putting in effort, but it's acceptable for you, it's something that you can do whenever you feel like you have a topic that you want to communicate with them about... It's super important. And phone calls are that thing.

NICK: There may be one unnamed app that some of you may have heard of, where you can send emails or faxes via text message. And this is clearly one of these technical solutions that was designed without the effectiveness of the solution in mind. Because you... First of all, everything is batched into an inbox. Think of an inbox with a thousand emails and they're all unread and they all have an attachment and you have to go in, the congressional aides have to go in and say... You know, click on an email, go into the attachment, figure out what they're talking about, figure out what their opinion is on what they're talking about, make sure they're a constituent, and then tally it and then you're done. Right? And that takes a huge amount of time and makes a huge impact on the people in the office. Because the people who are in the office can hear the phone calls happening. The people who are answering the phones are right there, listening to all the phones go off all day. If you're getting a ton of phone calls on the ACA, your whole office knows about it. If you're getting a thousand extra emails, maybe one person who is answering the emails knows about it. So that's why you need to choose effectiveness. Now, effectiveness has this other side that Jazmyn picked up yesterday. Jazmyn was saying about how, when you designed this tool to help people who needed help with their criminal justice histories—Jazmyn could have gone ahead and designed this whole system where it was automatic text message, you could resolve all your criminal justice in a particular county. You know all the details about the particular county. And the thing about that is that that would have only helped those people who had records in that county. And because Jazmyn figured out that all of the other counties had different processes through this discussion and talking with people who are actually having the problem, the solution was an effective one. It counted the fact that there are all of these other counties that have different processes. And then you have to submit to multiple processes at the same time to really make the tool effective. So those are my two things for making things that matter. We have purpose again. You make something with purpose.

NICK: We pick between these things that are actually physically bad and these things that are just barely acceptable too often. And there are lots of solutions to be found for lots of problems that people have. And they're all only solved by the combination of experience that you in particular have. All these other people who are designing things don't have the experience you have. And they can't design the solutions that you are designing. It comes out of your unique experiences. And the second is effectiveness. You can't design the solution to something unless you know what the actual solution is, and you can't do that without talking to people and understanding what the actual problems are or having the problems yourselves. And finally, you only have so much time to spend on all of this stuff every day. Use it to make effective solutions that matter.

NICK: Thank you.

Nick O’Neill

Indoor photo of Nick O'Neill holding and kissing a sten of broccoli

Nick O’Neill is a software engineer in San Francisco, CA and one of the founders of 5 Calls Civic Action. He is an advocate for open source technology and user experience that can make a difference. He enjoys a good pun.