Pocket Hotline is an application that can route support calls to anyone qualified to answer. Volunteers receive calls on their mobile phone whenever they are “on call.” Pocket Hotline also gives operators a custom CRM of searchable information at their fingertips from FAQs to tutorial tracts for specific deep discussions, allowing them to answer questions quickly and effectively.
While students at the Austin Center for Design in 2011, Chap Ambrose and I noticed an overwhelmed front-desk attendant at the local homeless shelter. With a line of homeless folks streaming out the door and the phone ringing off the hook, the attendant couldn't possibly help all the clients in a meaningful way. She made a conscious trade-off – help more by giving just enough information to move everyone along. One after another. All day long. The volume was unrelenting. At the same time, we realized that many people want to help the homeless, but most don't know how, or even where to start. While the holidays are brimming with altruistic volunteers, the remaining 11.5 months beg for the bare minimum.
Through a variety of research methods (contextual inquiry, interviews and observations), we observed at least 2 hours per person per week lost to redundant requests – over $750 annually at minimum wage. What if we could free up those resources and essentially give the shelter a new volunteer? We saw an opportunity to ease the information-distribution bottlenecks and capture the do-good impetus before it quickly disappears (again).
Photo Credit: AC4D Class of 2010
Pocket Hotline was designed to be mobile first and built on a combination of open source and inexpensive technologies. We built a light product using Twilio, Heroku, Twitter Bootstrap and jQuery Mobile.
We launched a couple hotlines seeded by AC4D students, friends and local shelter management. We quickly realized that we would not get the call volume to test the concept. Instead we looked for an analogue that mimicked similar characteristics: deep subject vertical, tight community, vast knowledge base with some answers that are simple and others more complicated. Chap was already a Rails developer and knew this community was already open to this format (StackExchange, Quora, etc) and willing to try something new. The Rails Hotline was born.
We quietly launched and quickly rose to the top of Hacker News. With tweets from Jason Fried and others, some great press, plenty of kind words and an influx in both volunteers and callers, we knew we were on to something.
As call volume surged, volunteers stopped answering calls. We started to understand the ramifications of always-on access. We quickly built an volunteer interface to support the community that likely would never meet face to face. We had to protect and support them. Community was our biggest asset and threat. We built a simple CMS to quickly customize hotline landing pages and get your toll-free number running in about 5 minutes. We added a "tip jar" for happy callers and/or community supporters to keep the lights on. Toll-free minutes aren't free and neither is hosting.
As the product matured, we realized the same model could apply to other nonprofit and even to for-profit endeavors whose customers need accurate, timely information. Commercial clients paid monthly subscriptions that subsidized a portion of the same service for nonprofits and other social enterprises. This subsidy model worked to address one of the main challenges we faced as new social entrepreneurs: Creating value does not equate just to monetary profit, but betterment of our community as a whole.
As we learned time after time at the homeless shelters, people don't want to feel used. They don't want to be examined during a fleeting stint of disaster tourism, have someone promise a better tomorrow and leave when their time is up. All to often, volunteers, schools and students undertook the same exercises we did (face time, building trust, delivering a promise) and then disappeared. As a result, it's hard to break through the walls of broken promises from outsiders. Even after we gained trust, we were still outsiders. We could empathize, but we weren't part of their reality. We could go home at night and take a hot shower. We didn't wait 2 hours to see if we were lucky enough to win the lottery for one of 230 beds. We didn't worry about someone stealing everything we own behind our back. We were still design tourists no matter how much we tried.
We presented our homeless hotline and support structures to rave review. We gained stakeholder trust and planned the details to make it real. We couldn't move fast enough. Then reality set in. City policies and legacy agreements stymied us from full-on implementation. Rotating leadership found us returning to square one repeatedly. Eventually we lost our internal champions. We became the byproduct of a profession that burns hot and burns out fast.
Photo Credit: AC4D Class of 2010