Jason Putorti and Jen Aprahamian, Resistbot
Jason Putorti and Jen Aprahamian, by Gretchen Röehrs
Resistbot is a free SMS chatbot that translates text messages into physical messages sent directly to your government representatives. It combines gamification with lean product development to facilitate daily engagement with government representatives. The process begins by texting RESIST to 50409, after which you’re prompted to send your name and zip code. Then the bot looks up your senators, and asks what you want to tell them. Once you’ve replied, your message gets sent as a fax to your senators’ offices. The bot responds to simple commands, and the more you use the bot, the more functionality you can access. It also regularly prompts you to communicate with elected officials about issues that matter to you. By reducing the amount of time and labor involved in contacting Congress, Resistbot hopes to foster greater civic participation in the Trump era.
We spoke to two of the people behind Resistbot, Jason Putorti and Jen Aprahamian. Jason is a designer and founder who has worked on a number of different political technology products, including Votizen and 2gov, two precursors to Resistbot. Jen is a software developer working at Code for America, and a former CTO and technology educator. We discussed the origins of the bot, how it was made, where it is headed, and the importance of lowering barriers to civic engagement.
What is Resistbot and how did it get started?
Jason Putorti: I would say Resistbot started on election night. We were in the Javits Center in New York that night for hours just waiting and watching the returns. Imagine a room full of very passionate Hillary supporters, fundraisers who had worked very hard, when the results started rolling in on TV and the news started saying she wasn’t going to win.
It was rough. When it was over, we walked out into the street, and it was all super surreal. It was very quiet—we didn’t really know what the hell just happened. We were both pretty depressed.
Jen wanted to leave the country—we started looking at New Zealand and Canada and applying for programs that needed tech workers, because all the stuff Trump wanted to do was very scary. I went home to see my parents. Jen went back to California and just let things settle out.
I’d been in the technology and politics space for a while. I moved out to the Valley in 2007, and when the 2008 race happened I was at Mint and started to get interested in merging tech and politics. How could we use one to help the other?
Fast forward to after the election. I’m starting to think: okay, what am I going to do now? So I kicked around a few different ideas. There was a lot of political technology out there, but there wasn’t anything quite what we wanted—some sort of tool to get people to pressure Congress.
I talked to my friends in politics about different ideas, and got connected with Eric Ries, who was an original investor in my previous company Votizen. Eric had a similar problem where he could not reach Dianne Feinstein on the phone, because she represents 38 million people. The size of Congress hasn’t kept up with the number of people they represent, especially senators from California.
He couldn’t reach his representatives via conventional means, so he was interested in doing some sort of chatbot in order to reach them. I was originally thinking about building a tool with call patching, but his main problem was that he couldn’t reach them with calls. So ultimately we settled on faxing.
Eric called Twilio and we were able to get some volunteers. We were able to get some support internally, because Twilio’s foundation has an initiative called Voices of Democracy which specifically seeks to connect people to their representatives. It all came together pretty quickly—the MVP of it was just text-to-fax: you text “resist” to 50409. It asks you your name, it asks you your zip code, and what you want to say. Done: two minutes later, it sends a fax to your senator.
Could you talk a little bit about your strategy for reaching members of Congress? Why faxes?
Jason: After the election there was a big emphasis on calling your representative. The feeling was calls, calls, calls—that’s what mattered most. But Eric could not call his representatives, since he could never get through—that method didn’t work.
You could email your representatives, but Congress deliberately makes web forms difficult. When you go to the website, you have to fill out a captcha, enter your entire address, and classify at a low level what each message is about. They don’t make it particularly easy.
It’s not with bad intentions. They want only their own constituents to be able to reach them. Nancy Pelosi does not want people in Kentucky calling her office, so they need to screen for real constituents. That is difficult to do.
The systems that exist now make it very easy for Congress, and put all the burden on the user. We wanted to make it easy for the user. We went with SMS as a medium, since at this point it is universal. You don’t even need a smartphone for it. Then faxing was actually the easiest way to launch fast and get a message directly to a Congressperson.
Can you talk a bit more about the technology involved with creating Resistbot?
Jason: We started out at first with Phaxio and then moved on to use Rapid Pro—Twilio SMS is the thing that’s actually getting the message from your phone to Rapid Pro, which is basically a big conversational state machine. It’s a bunch of flows with a database behind it, and can call webhooks out to different services. We later moved on to use the Twilio Fax API—Jen can talk more about that.
Jen Aprahamian: Jason and Eric and the crack team from Twilio worked on building Resistbot initially. And I was just like, “Oh, this is really neat, I’m so excited for you that you have this side project that you’re working on.”
At some point it started growing bigger, and so I asked if they needed anybody to help with it. I think I was fishing for a side project. So Jason bought me into the Slack channel, and then I immediately started getting to work on the backend: the Flask app that powers all the sauce to find your representatives and their numbers, and Rapid Pro, which handles all of the conversation bot logic.
At first I was like, I’m going to casually contribute to this. And then all of a sudden both of us realized that this is what we now do with every waking moment. We went on vacation and ended up barely leaving the hotel room. We were like, we should probably go do some activities, but there’s a bug that can be fixed, and what if we fixed that instead?
Jason: Eric and I originally intended it to be a side project: an experiment in how we could get people to engage daily. And one of our big ideas was to bring in the principles of game design, by starting people off really simply and revealing functionality over time.
That’s why initially Resistbot just asks you for your name and zip code, and just connects you to your senators. The thought was: let’s get people as quickly as possible to a delightful, successful outcome, and the next day we’ll introduce their representatives. And the next day, hey, now you can sign your letters. Now you can mail letters. Now you can start to target who you send a message to. Now you can submit a letter to the editor. Now you can access a town hall.
It introduces new concepts slowly, and celebrates milestones of participation. When you hit ten letters, when you hit twenty letters, we send a little congratulations iOS message which will trigger confetti to go off on your screen.
This has been a free excerpt from Tech Against Trump, a new book by Logic chronicling the rising tide of anti-Trump resistance by tech workers and technologists.