There are smart phone apps for everything. There’s one that emits a high pitched sound to ward off mosquitoes. Another tells you if your driving habits are wasting gas. Now, a software developer has created an app designed to boost membership in nonprofit organizations. NHPR’s Jon Greenberg reports this technology has drawn a great deal of attention and more than a little concern.
Alice is a 30-something professional. This week, she came face to face with a new app called ShowNtell.
ALICE: Quite frankly , I was really embarrassed.”
Alice doesn’t want us to use her last name. She was an unwitting participant in the final test run of the application currently being piloted by a group of nonprofits around the country. That group, we should note, includes NHPR. Alice listens to public radio – a lot.
ALICE: I’ve always sort of thought of myself as a public radio person. I have the sticker on my car, I mean to be fair, when I bought the car, it had the sticker on it.”
Alice was telling a co-worker about a report she had heard the night before.
ALICE: And then all of sudden, the guy I was talking to holds up his iphone and puts it in my face and says ‘You know for a person who likes public radio so much, you’re not contributing.”
Which was true. The man behind ShowNtell, Timo Platt with Portsmouth-based Pokos Communications, says that’s exactly how the app is supposed to work. The first step uses the phone’s camera to scan for a visual identification and then the data mining begins.
PLATT: We can tap into every Facebook profile. We can tap into every Twitter profile and it’s amazing. It can tell us whether that person has given to NHPR.”
Platt says the system uses many other commercially available databases and the result it spits out – member versus nonmember -- comes with a probability rating to indicate the level of certainty.
NHPR Board member, Bill Gillett, says ShowNtell will be a tremendous tool for the board.
GILLETT: We thought -- we need something that will let us know when we are at a party, at a meeting, when we’re walking down the street, who we want to talk to and who we should be talking to.”
Not everyone is so enthusiastic.
VERDI: Frankly, I think the technology is shocking.”
John Verdi is Senior Counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.. He says the power of ShowNtell is almost like magic, and it’s very troubling.
VERDI: There are real questions about the sufficiency of federal and state laws to regulate this sort of activity. To make sure it is fair to consumers and fair to users. ”
Supporters of ShowNtell argue that by putting this app in the hands of individuals, it uses social pressure to promote essential fairness. People who use public radio should help pay for it. Verdi doesn’t buy it.
VERDI: From a bookie’s perspective, breaking kneecaps promotes fairness in gambling debt collection. I don’t see how an application like this fits with the mission of a reputable company.”
The risk to public image looms large in the minds of nonprofit executives who are watching to see how this plays out. Margaret Hunt runs the membership office for public radio station WNYC in New York. Hunts says ShowNtell might help fundraising, but it could also hurt it.
HUNT: There’s some privacy in listening to public radio. Maybe there are those people who want to stay private or don’t want to be called out in such a public way. It might make them mad and make them actually not give.”
The consortium of nonprofits that plan to use the new app say that could happen but they’re betting that overall, public sensibilities in the days of social media have shifted. Investors seem to agree. Matt Pierson is an angel investor in the half-million dollar range. He says the nonprofit sector is a multi-billion dollar industry and ShowNtell shifts the time and place to leverage donations.
PIERSON: That real time information is power, and if you can monetize that information, that's where the investment community gets excited.”
Pierson says the mantra among investors is Privacy is Out; profits are in.
ShowNtell is available for download today, April first. The consortium will evaluate it this summer after a three month test period.
For NHPR News, I’m Jon Greenberg.