Chenoweth and Pressman’s spreadsheet is separate from another effort to gather attendance data using SMS messaging. This text census, which was put together by an organization called It’s Time Network, has raised questions about privacy and its affiliation with the organizers of the Women’s March.
In person and on social media, demonstrators were urged to text the words “count me” to the number 89800. Those instructions were boosted by celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis and George Takei, who have large followings on Twitter. Despite appearing at first to be an official effort from the Women’s March organizers themselves, the march’s official Twitter account briefly tweeted, then deleted, a message distancing itself from the headcount, according to Snopes.
A spokesperson for It’s Time Networks, which partners with organizations focused on empowering women and girls, said the confusion was the result of “an unfortunate miscommunication.” It’s Time Network had been in touch with the organizers of the Women’s March since early January, the spokesperson said, and had offered to turn over all the data they gathered by SMS—they asked participants for their phone number, zip code, email, and where they marched—to the organizers.
It’s unclear whether the march organizers ever officially endorsed the text census—emails to a spokesperson for the Women’s March weren’t returned—or what they plan to do with the data they’ll receive. While participants were asked to text in order to be counted, one of the main goals of the campaign is to build a list of phone numbers that belong to people who demonstrated on Saturday, or who supported the marches. If the march organizers choose to, they’ll be able to send messages to the list of people who asked to be counted.
Some privacy advocates pointed out on Twitter that the number that march participants were asked to text—89800—appears to be connected to a company that uses the number to send up to eight monthly “alerts regarding promotions, coupons, and time sensitive deals from local businesses.” The opt-in message associated with the marketing line, however, is “DEALMEIN” rather than “count me.” The company that appears to maintain 89800, txtwire, could not be reached for comment.
Chenoweth said she spoke with representatives of It’s Time Network a few weeks ago, and cautioned against using SMS messaging to gather data on march participants. “I don’t know if you guys want to be liable for keeping people’s personal information about their participation,” she warned. “If you are, make sure that people know the risks of self-reporting at an individual level.”
She and Pressman are still building out their census spreadsheet, and they’ve already enlisted at least one research assistant for help. “I view this as a first cut,” Pressman said of the spreadsheet as it stands. He told me he wanted to break out participation by U.S. state—and within hours of our conversation, a new tab appeared on the spreadsheet that did just that.
The pair is thinking about ways to institutionalize their ad hoc head-counting operation to track future events. For now, they hope that a running count of will offer march leaders and participants a rare commodity in organizing: a way to measure their success.