Twilio Helps Nonprofits Enter the API Economy With Social Good Venture

Mark Boyd
Jul. 14 2014, 03:30PM EDT

Twilio’s new social good venture, Twilio.org, is bringing API-enabled communications to nonprofits around the world. While the initiative is helping nonprofits understand the potential of using APIs in their campaigns, a lack of API developer hours to resource the work remains a bottleneck. Meghan Murphy, senior community manager at Twilio, explains how more API developers can get involved.
 

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“Last September, we launched Twilio.org, a program with the firm objective of sending a billion messages for good,” Murphy says. “We wanted to harness what was happening at Twilio and scale a way to help not-for-profits who are interested in using communications to amplify what they are doing.

“Up to that point, we were getting lots of sponsorship and development support requests very ad hoc. One hundred fifty nonprofits have signed up so far, and when you think about how technical our Twilio API program is, onboarding 150 nonprofits is a really positive initial result,” she says.

An Open Source Toolkit for Disaster Recovery

One of the first byproducts to come out of the Twilio.org camp is a set of open source tools to help nonprofits, local agencies, civic services and early responders make use of Twilio to enable communications after climate and other disasters.
 

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Kat Borlongan, co-founder of open data startup Five by Five in Paris, spoke about the disparity between the tech available to first responders managing emergency relief and e-commerce vendors at the API Strategy and Practice conference in Amsterdam earlier this year. She showed that while e-commerce vendors can make use of predictive algorithms, usage patterns and geolocalization, first responders in an emergency area like Tacloban City in the Philippines after last year’s Typhoon Haiyan were using basic tech tools like text messaging and Excel spreadsheets.
 

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Above: Slide from Kat Borlongan’s presentation Tech vs. Disaster at API Strategy and Practice in March.

Borlongan was involved in harnessing the tech community’s expertise following the Philippines' natural disaster and told ProgrammableWeb:

Several people from Twilio’s team reached out to help. They offered to let us use their APIs for free and were willing to dedicate staff to help build the solutions. It’s frankly one of the best and quickest forms of API philanthropy I’ve seen so far. I’m hoping this sends a strong signal to other tech companies who, up until now, may have never imagined the immense role they could play in improving the fields of rescue and disaster relief. I’d like to think that we’re heading towards a larger cultural shift in that direction.

Helping Nonprofits Understand What’s Possible

One of the challenges has been that many nonprofits are unaware of the potential solutions they could harness from using APIs and cloud-based solutions. Code for America, for example, one of Twilio.org’s tech partners, is addressing this information gap each year through its Fellows program, which helps place designers and developers inside local government authorities to help them understand what is possible by using the API-driven solutions that developers are tinkering with every day.

Arvid Dyfverman works with creative agency Deportivo (now owned by international PR company Edelman) in Sweden and has been part of a team that has won numerous awards for using APIs to help nonprofits manage campaigns that connect with the community and explain a humanitarian issue or encourage community action to build sustainable solutions. One campaign, for example, used APIs to raise awareness of the homelessness facing many refugee children who manage to escape war and persecution and end up living on the streets in Stockholm.

Dyfverman says that when working with nonprofits, there is often a learning curve not just to discuss campaign ideas but to educate nonprofits on what is possible:

The awareness from our clients actually differs quite a bit. Some of our clients do have insights on the potential of the APIs we tend to use, but rarely on a practical level. Most of them know what they want to achieve but not how to do it. Our clients rarely have their own departments for these kinds of discussions and usually get more excited or interested on how everything actually came to be after we’ve finished a project, especially when we show our case or behind-the-scenes films. It’s like until everything comes together, there is this great amount of uncertainty. We tend to make things that have never been done before, which can be quite stressful for everyone involved! It’s when we see the final result that we can look back and proudly showcase our technical solutions, and that usually ignites a spark of joy and interest from our clients.

The satisfaction that developers can get from working with nonprofits reflects a changing role that occurred for many API-focused developers working in businesses just a couple of years ago. As APIs and integration architecture became more of a necessity, developer roles evolved to take on more of a business analyst role: identifying what data sets hold value; mapping business workflows and identifying efficiency gains; and building the business case behind using particular technical solutions and approaches. With Twilio.org, developers can get a deeper sense of the impact of their work and gain satisfaction from helping nonprofits in the ways that Dyfverman has described.

Murphy agrees that there is wide variability in nonprofit understanding of the potential of using APIs and urges developers to get involved.

“There is definitely a mix (in API literacy levels in nonprofits),” says Murphy. “Sixty to seventy percent of our Twilio.org folks are familiar with Twilio and familiar with how we work as a platform, what an API is, and maybe half have a technical resource on staff. So far, we have tended to reach nonprofits who are at least familiar enough with that. They know what they want to do, but there is always that conversation like ‘Hey, you can send a broadcast but you can also make that two way.’ We also come into a lot of social good organizations that have been referred to us and are trying to figure out how to use notifications for volunteers or fundraising but don’t understand what an API is and how to build that out.”

How Developers Can Get Involved

Murphy says she sees opportunities for more developers to get involved every day. In part, that has been the goal of open sourcing the disaster relief toolkit on GitHub: to let developers take the initiative and contribute to the work independently.

There are a range of nonprofits that are technically savvy, but they don’t have the resources on hand, or just have the IT person, who is not going to build a Twilio app necessarily but has got some experience with sourcing developers for pro bono work, and then, on the other hand, there are some nonprofits where all of this is new to them.

We would love to expand on that piece of it, to really pull in developers who are interested in contributing. We’re not providing a matchmaking service, but we definitely want to make developer connections with nonprofits part of this service.

Developers who want to get involved can contribute to the GitHub code work on the Rapid Response Kit or email Twilio.org to discuss potential project opportunities.

Three Recent Projects from Twilio.org

Project: Revitalizing civic life

Overview: “Detroit has some issues maintaining an ongoing, accessible transportation schedule, as people don’t necessarily have a smartphone to look up tiemtables online,” says Murphy. “So with this project, you can text the intersection where you are standing and you get an updated bus schedule.”

Project: Facilitating health care

Overview: “Doctors Without Borders launched a pilot program in Zimbabwe to use text messaging to remind people to come in for their appointments and maintain their treatment plan. Originally, this was completely paper-based, and with Twilio they cut down on missed appointments by half. They partnered with Random Hacks of Kindness, and two developers knocked it out in a weekend.”

Project: Coordinating volunteer resources

Overview: “Red Cross recently rebuilt their day-to-day volunteer coordination. Previously they had to make individual calls to volunteers, and now they can do it with text messaging blasts and message call downs.”

API developers interested in finding out more can review the Twilio.org website or contact the team directly.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities. I can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.

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