A long-time technology journalist joins Twilio after building her first voice broadcasting and SMS alerts app at an Oakland hackathon.
The announcement for the Code for Oakland hackathon last spring immediately caught my eye for its unusual emphasis on building mobile apps for public records. I didn’t know anything about making a mobile app, but public records are my passion. So I joined about 85 other people at the Kaiser Auditorium on a drizzly Saturday morning and gave my first hackathon pitch.
My idea was to build an app that helped felons get back into the workforce. Admittedly, this is not a sexy subject: You start talking about it at a dinner party and people back away. The word “felon” alone is enough to prompt a venture capitalist to hit the delete button.
But the coders and designers who responded to my pitch didn’t need a dissertation on the roots of urban violence. David Chiu and Alex Tam, two brilliant designers from the renowned Frog Design, immediately began building a conceptual framework for thinking about the problem and the ways a mobile app could contribute to a solution.
By coincidence, one of the attendees at the hackathon had recently been released from federal prison. He walked us through the technological barriers that people on parole and probation face when looking for work. Among them: They don’t have regular access to the Internet. They don’t have smart phones. And their literacy rates are low.
Of course, there are other barriers facing felons that technology can’t solve. Be we figured an SMS-based job listing service would help level the playing field.
We envisioned a solution that made existing services more effective. A halfway house resident would work with a career counselor to craft a resume, which would then be added to a master txt2wrk database containing job listings. Txt2wrk would send out a voice and SMS alert the instant it matched the resume to a job. The applicant could then listen to the job description and apply by pressing a button on his or her phone.
It soon became clear that felons weren’t the only ones who might benefit from such a service. A job alerts system built around interactive voice and SMS broadcasting would have broad utility for a wide range of folks who don’t have smart phones. (VisionMobile pegs this number at 73% worldwide.) In the months that followed, the team would turn txt2wrk into a platform that can be downloaded by any social service organization who would like to use voice broadcasting and SMS alerts to communicate with their clients.
Our focus at the hackathon that day, however, was on building the prototype. How could we pull this off? Telephony-centered apps have historically been notoriously expensive and hard to build. And that’s where Twilio came in. A programmer named Robbie Trencheny told us about this “cool cloud communications platform.” Twenty minutes later, txt2wrk was sending out voice broadcasts and SMS alerts. You can view the code at github.
Txt2wrk won first prize at the Code for Oakland hackathon. And last week, our team was awarded third prize in national Apps for Communities Challenge sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission. “You had me at text to work,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told team as he presented the award.
Likewise, Twilio won me over with the power and possibilities of its cloud communications platform. I joined the team in November. If Twilio can put the tools of a phone company in the hands of someone like me, I can’t want to see what a world full of real developers will do with them.
For more information about txt2wrk, feel free to contact the team at email@example.com or follow them on Twitter at @txt2wrk.
Elise Ackerman covered technology for the San Jose Mercury News from 2000 to 2009. She currently blogs about emerging telecom technologies at at Forbes.com.