Texting for a Cleaner Planet: How 350.org Used Mobiles

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Oct 20, 2009

On October 24th, 2009, more than 5200 events in 181 countries took place as part of a climate change awareness campaign. Planned by 350.org, this worldwide festival of events is a call to action.

In December, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen with one critical goal in mind: to create a global treaty to curb carbon emissions.  350.org wants to ensure that the treaty is tough enough to enforce the changes necessary to lower atmospheric carbon levels.

The 350.org name comes from the level of acceptable carbon dioxide –350 parts per million – that can exist in the atmosphere before effects of global warming begin to manifest. Currently, the carbon levels in the atmosphere are at 390 parts per million; 350.org believes that lowering the carbon emissions in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million can help undo some of the damage caused by global warming.

From underwater cabinet meetings in the Maldives, to community tree planting parties, to Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian supporters gathering to write out 350 on the shores of the Dead Sea, the events sought to creatively draw attention to the need for lower carbon levels in the atmosphere - and the mobile phone has become one of many tools for sharing that information and creating publicity.

According to Phil Aroneanu, creative media director of 350.org, promotion for the campaign took advantage of every available medium: “You name it, we’ve got it. We’ve got viral videos, we have an interactive website, we use social networking tools – Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, in like ten different languages – we just launched this mobile program, we’re doing public advertisement in some cities, chalking, grassroots flashmobs, really anything you can think of, we’re doing it someplace in the world.”

And mobile phones played a big part of the wide reach of the campaign. Aroneanu described the process saying, “So, what we’ve done in most places is, working with our friends over at Tactical Tech Collective and Kiwanja, we’ve put together these packages with a guide and an SMS modem that has been unlocked. People can just insert a SIM card that they purchase in their own country and plug it in to the computer that’s running 24 hours a day. [They] set up the keywords and basically run it like a phone tree. I can send a blast centrally from the U.S. and it will get blasted out automatically to the SMS numbers that they have in those places […] Or, they can send out text message alerts from their system if they’re in touch with the organizers of the events in those places.”

Bobby Soriano of the Tactical Tech Collective worked with 350.org to create the global SMS system, developing different “nodes” (country-specific groups) for the decentralized system. The system (a combination of tools that included FrontlineSMS, Clickatell, and mCommons, depending on the region) allows 350.org to send blasts to all subscribers, while each node can send country-specific information as well. According to Soriano, this was done for reasons of both access, since not all programs run in every country, and cost, with cost being the main reason for decentralizing the system.

Soriano says, “The main challenge is actually cost, because if we centralize everything, for example [from] the 350 headquarters in New York, what will happen is that it’s going to send out SMS messages to different countries. That means that it would be at the cost of an international SMS message, so basically it’s not sustainable. But if we do it decentralized, meaning per country as a node, every time you send out an SMS message, the cost will be local [… ]So, it’s more sustainable that way because SMS messages are cheaper per country.”

As part of the information-sharing/gathering role of the organization, 350.org used mobile devices and an SMS campaign to collect public comments and reports from events throughout October. In the month leading up to Oct. 24, Aroneanu sent six different blasts to some 5,000 subscribers in the U.S., and said he received back over 1,500 responses with details about events and actions taking place across the country. On Oct. 24th, 350.org sent out a text soliciting people’s comments about events that were happening at that time, and got live feedback from roughly 100 U.S. participants. In the Philippines, where Soriano estimated he was sending up to three texts a day in the last push before Oct. 24th, the number of Filipino participants in 350.org events jumped from 50 to over 700 in two weeks, according to Aroneanu.  Aroneau conceded that the level of mobile engagement on the day of the action was lower than he had anticipated.

On October 24th, pictures uploaded on the campaign's Flickr page, and SMS and tweets were displayed on three big screens in Times Square, New York, trying to show the international scope of and support for the 350 message. The photos and texts were delivered to U.N. delegates in New York on October 26th, and will be used in promotional events throughout November leading up to the final treaty meeting; for example, the tweets in the 350.org Twitter feed will be displayed in real time as preliminary negotiations take place in Barcelona during the first two weeks of November. 350.org has set up a Twitter feed that will track continued support for stricter measures on global warming. International users can send a local text message that will join into the international 350.org feed.

While Aroneanu acknowledges that even if the U.N. climate treaty passes, there will still be other obstacles – from getting the treaty ratified in member countries, to enforcing its terms – 350.org aimed to create a large-scale, global campaign. Aroneanu summed up the process saying, “I think what the 350 moment is going to teach us is that there is a movement, and it’s global, and it’s connected, and we can be powerful. Leaders should really pay attention to what people are asking for – and that’s for a really strong, fair, ambitious, binding climate treaty that gets us back to 350.”

Photo credit: Shadia Fayne Wood on the 350.org Flickr stream

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