If you want to know how people feel about healthcare in America, just ask Eric Ries.
“Everytime there’s a new healthcare bill, people go nuts,” Ries told Business Insider. “If I didn’t read the news, I would know when there’s a new bill from the server melt down problems alone.”
Ries is one of the original developers behind Resistbot, the text message-based bot which makes it easy for users to send letters and faxes to their representatives in Congress. The bot has amassed 1.366 million total users since it first launched in March — a number which goes up with every shift in federal policy, from healthcare to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Resistbot works like this: users text “RESIST” to the number 50409 — or message the bot over Facebook. The bot asks a series of questions, like full name and zipcode, so that it can identity the user’s local senators. It then sends a fax to the senator’s office with a personalised message from the user about their concerns. Yes, a real paper fax.
Once users have sent a fax, they can unlock more capabilities — such as outreach to members of the House of Representatives, personalised and physical letters, as well as phone calls.
This week alone — in the days since Republicans senators introduced the Graham-Cassiy bill to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act — Resistbot has seen its new users increase by the thousands. From September 18 to 21, the app had a total of 34,368 new users. The most active day was September 19, when the bot had 80,589 active users, new and returning.
Jason Putorti, who now runs a lot of the day-to-day operations for the bot, said that Resistbot has resulted in almost 5 million faxes sent, 33,000 postal letters, and nearly 34,000 call minutes to representatives.
Over all, the bot has sent and received 91,421,000 text messages.
It’s a heavy load for the volunteer-based application, which was built on the programmable text message software Twilio and is hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS) servers.
“Classic scaling problems”
The specific logic of the bot was customised by the Resistbot team, but the core of it is the opensource communication platform called Rapid Pro.
The bot also integrates with other applications, such as Lob, a system that helps businesses programmatically send large quantities of physical mail.
Still in its early days, Resistbot continues to face what Ries called “one of those classic scaling problems.” The team has already run through its free usage limits on both GitHub and Slack.
Ries said that while the bot software is good at its job, none of the components were designed to be used at the scale the bot has been experiencing. As the result, the wait time for sending messages can be long. Every once in a while the system has what Ries calls “a total meltdown.”
“It’s designed fo very high scale,” Ries said. “We’re just really pushing it.”
Users, however, don’t seem to mind. Once run entirely on Ries’ personal creditcard, Resistbot is now fully funded by user donations. Over 20,000 people have given Resistbot money, which is used to fund postage for physical letters as well as AWS server costs.
Despite taking phone calls from the press, Ries insists that he’s rather hands off about the project these days. The bot is primarily managed by a core group of six to eight engineers.
A total of 123 people have contributed across tasks, from managing social media to submitting letters to the editor to local newspapers (one of the latest features to be added to the bot). There’s also a fulltime customer support person — a stay-at-home mum — as well as an editor who writes a policy blog at Resistbot.news.
As Resistbot grows in popularity with every passing Senate bill, Ries said he sees this as a new way of doing politics.
“I think we’ll develop a whole new range of techniques for coordinating and doing activism. Resistbot is just connective tissue and glue to get it going,” Ries said. “I don’t see this as an ideological or partisan thing. This is really about the forces of democracy versus the forces of illiberalism.”
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