Prioritizing action: How The Lenfest Local Lab @ The Inquirer created a bilingual texting service to help get Philadelphians vaccinated

Quickly building a bilingual community vaccine texting service for North Philadelphians happened as a result of many months of community collaboration.

In April 2021, the city of Philadelphia announced it would open the second of its two mass vaccine clinics to make the vaccination process easier and more accessible for North Philadelphia residents. In response, our team launched an English and Spanish-language texting service to offer residents of West Kensington and Fairhill, two North Philadelphia neighborhoods, simple and quick access to critical and actionable information about the clinic’s vaccination process. At the time of the clinic’s announcement, our team was in the middle of conducting research to launch a hyperlocal West Kensington and Fairhill neighborhood newsletter, in collaboration with neighborhood organizations.

We chose text messaging in order to move quickly and efficiently, delivering clarifying information to residents of neighborhoods that had been disproportionately affected by Covid-19. And while few details were available about the clinic when we started, we knew our Inquirer colleagues would be covering the opening and that our neighborhood collaborators could likely share information and resources that would make the process easier for residents. From a community accessibility standpoint, we also took cues from the foundational and important work happening at organizations such as Outlier MediaEpicenter NYCThe Oaklandside and Equally Informed Philly, where essential-resource-sharing and texting were prioritized over other forms of content and formats to serve residents during this time. Our work also came on the heels of the Texas Tribune’s texting efforts that helped many cope during the 2021 winter storm that left much of the state without power.

Our texting service was time-boxed, and we spun it down as the clinic itself closed at the end of May, since our main objective was to offer actionable information — information that residents could use specifically for the purposes of getting vaccinated. We were able to move quickly, as the Texas Tribune did, but we did not take for granted that we were only able to do so because there was deep engagement work that happened beforehand, community work that prepared us to respond to a very specific need, and because, as a team, we rallied around a process that allowed for thoughtful prioritization when we decided to put the newsletter work on pause.

In this post, we hope to walk you through the different phases of the work we undertook to make this texting service possible and to offer context about the landscape in which we’re working.

A step back

When Covid struck Philadelphia, it affected communities of color more so than others, a painfully present trend across the country. The disproportionate impact became even more evident as the vaccine rollout exacerbated inequities — in April, 30% of white Philadelphians had been vaccinated, while only 16% and 14% of Black and Hispanic Philadelphians, respectively, had been vaccinated.

The 19140 zip code — a mostly Hispanic and Black community in North Philadelphia — was struck particularly hard, and sat at the lower third of vaccination rates in Philadelphia when the city announced it would be opening a second FEMA-run mass vaccine clinic. It was no surprise, then, that the city found a local partner for the clinic: Esperanza, a trusted and well-known area nonprofit that focuses on serving the large Hispanic community of this part of the city.

As Esperanza’s President and CEO Reverend Luis Cortés explained in an interview (1:30 mark), Esperanza’s neighborhood is home to people who represent the economic backbone of the city, and who hadn’t had the option to work from home to shield themselves from the virus.

Fairhill and West Kensington, the North Philadelphia neighborhoods we sought to serve with the hyperlocal newsletter project, are located only about a mile and a half south of Esperanza and were similarly affected by Covid-19. While the neighborhoods aren’t strictly within the 19140 zip code boundaries, some Fairhill and West Kensington community members are served by Esperanza’s programming and the clinic’s proximity had the potential to make the vaccination process more convenient.

After understanding that the clinic’s purpose was to serve North Philadelphia residents specifically — with the mission of closing the equity gap in vaccination rates — we knew that the work and relationships we had been cultivating in North Philadelphia, including with Esperanza and its publication Impacto, could be oriented toward offering a service that would demystify and facilitate the vaccination process at the new site.

At the time of the mass vaccine clinic’s announcement, very little additional information was provided. We learned through our conversations with Esperanza and The Philadelphia Inquirer that this was, in part, by design. Partners in this effort were looking to ensure that residents of nearby neighborhoods, those who had been disproportionately impacted by Covid, wouldn’t have trouble getting vaccinated at the site. The first FEMA-run site in Philadelphia had seen an outsized influx of residents from wealthier neighborhoods due to better access to technology, less issues with language barriers, and more flexible work hours. So, we asked ourselves, why not offer a geo-specific set of information in an easy-to-access format for residents who were meant to be the main beneficiaries of this clinic?

Through our previous conversations in the community, we had a sense that texting would be a useful medium. Text messages are accessible and also immediate, which are two essential aspects of equitably delivering news and information about Covid-19 vaccine rollouts. We knew our colleagues at the Inquirer would be covering the clinic and details around it, too, and we could offer embedded links to Inquirer stories that helped contextualize whatever actionable information we offered.

To start, we focused on providing practical information, such as opening date, operating hours, and how to access the site. Eventually, building off of work we had been exploring to share essential resources in the newsletter, we expanded our information offerings to include more details around the types of vaccines offered, and what the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause would mean for residents. We had also been working through the idea of offering the newsletter for Fairhill and West Kensington residents in a bilingual, Spanish and English format, and understood our texting service would have to follow the same model.

Getting started

Because the clinic was opened to first serve nearby residents, we made sure that we took steps to market this service to those residents in West Kensington and Fairhill.

To do so, we ran zip-code-targeted Facebook advertisements to reach residents of West Kensington and Fairhill in the 19140 and 19133 zip codes. Two ad campaigns were created — one in Spanish and one in English — and ran for about one month. Both campaigns together cost $826 and reached more than 19,000 users. The prices to run these campaigns were higher than the targeted Facebook ads we ran when launching the first neighborhood newsletter in Fishtown, because we ran two campaigns for a longer period of time for this service.

We also collaborated with The Philadelphia Inquirer to create information pages for the service in English and Spanish, and only shared those pages with community organizations and local newsrooms, like the Kensington VoiceHACE, the NKCDC and the clinic’s organizer, Esperanza. We had previously connected with these organizations as a part of our planned neighborhood newsletter project.

We chose Groundsource as our text messaging platform because their service made it easy to create and maintain multiple subscriber lists, which was helpful for sending messages to English and Spanish subscribers. Groundsource founder, Andrew Haeg, was also helpful before and during the service when it came to any technical support.

Overall, 18 people signed up for the Spanish-language messages and 33 people signed up for the English-language messages.

We began sending messages on April 7, the week the clinic opened, and concluded the service on June 17 following the closure of the clinic.

Collaboration during the service

It is also important to acknowledge that our existing collaborators at Esperanza graciously connected us with other representatives from their organization who played a major role in the communications around the clinic.

We were able to set up a line of information sharing with Esperanza representatives throughout the service. We shared the texts we sent to subscribers and insights on how we marketed the service, and Esperanza sent us important clinic updates and insights into how the clinic was running and how we could better amplify information. For example, when we shut down the texting service, we included information about an upcoming vaccination clinic that Esperanza operated, which Esperanza shared with us.

We also collaborated with The Philadelphia Inquirer’s service journalism desk to create a translated transportation guide that helped readers get to the city’s mass vaccination clinics by public and private transportation.

You can read those guides in English and in Spanish.

Running the service

Once the clinic opened and the service was live, we began sending out text messages with updates about the clinic, updates to the city’s vaccine eligibility, relevant breaking news, and other hyperlocal vaccine information.

When drafting what to include in text messages, we thought about the actions people could take from a message and how to make the information as actionable as possible. For example, if an article only informed a reader that something around the city’s vaccine rollout has happened, we wouldn’t send a message until there was a change that impacted residents.

For example, at the time of the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine administration, we wrote the following message to subscribers.

We structured this text to include:

  • Most actionable information for residents at the top
  • Followed by additional context

Read a full list of every message we sent during this texting service here.

Answering residents’ questions

We also let residents send us anonymous questions about getting vaccinated, with the caveat that we were unable to secure appointments for subscribers.

We received three questions from three English-language subscribers, and eight questions from five Spanish-language subscribers, meaning that each Spanish-language subscriber asked more than one question on average.

Despite the smaller list size, we saw stronger direct engagement with subscribers to the Spanish-language list throughout the service, and overall, tracking this engagement with a small group of subscribers helped us establish a baseline understanding of the usefulness of emergency hyperlocal texting services.

A lot of the conversations we had with Spanish-language subscribers were clarifying and straightforward. In one instance, for example, one subscriber asked us specifically to clarify whether or not they would need an appointment to get vaccinated.

We replied by explaining that no, appointments were not required, and we offered the clinic’s most recent operating hours (those changed several times throughout the clinic’s run). We took a cue from this Spanish-speaking resident’s question, and told them that we would share the response we sent them with the rest of our subscribers to ensure that everyone was on the same page. We also underscored that we would keep their question or any identifying information completely anonymous.

A few other questions were about clearing up concerns or confusion. For instance, when the clinic announced it would be closing, the guidance was to fully vaccinate all residents who had received their first vaccine, as long as their second vaccine fell within the clinic’s remaining operating time frame.

For community members who had received their first vaccine but would be due for their second shot after the closing date, the directive was to have them get their second vaccine at a different community or city clinic. We received a handful of texts asking us to clear up who could end up getting a second shot at Esperanza during its last few weeks of operations. Residents also expressed concern about their second shot’s manufacturer matching the first shot they received. That is, would they be able to get the second shot of Pfizer — not a different vaccine — if Esperanza was winding down? All of our answers provided a step-by-step explanation of second-shot eligibility and the timing of the clinic’s closure, along with a list of locations for other community clinics for those who would not meet the Esperanza clinic’s cut-off.

As we went along, we heard from at least one resident that our service had helped them get vaccinated, which was welcome, unsolicited feedback.

Due to this strong engagement, we began to see a need for translated critical information through this service and had planned to continue learning more about this by working with Spanish-language translation of actionable, hyperlocal news and resources in the upcoming neighborhood newsletter for West Kensington and Fairhill residents.

We also set up some editorial standards and commitments around sharing translated and information that was only presented in English.

  • First, when we have supplemental information only in English, we default to not including that nonessential information at all until we can also provide information to the Spanish-language subscribers.
  • However, when essential information is only available in English, we include that information to Spanish-language subscribers with a note that this information appears only in English, while also breaking out the most important information from that article and translating it in the text.

It was important that we try to provide equal access to information, translate as much as we could in text messages and explain what language information would appear in if not in someone’s preferred language.

Winding the service down & what we’ve learned

The texting service had a natural, organic end-point: the clinic’s closing. By focusing on actionable information regarding the clinic, we ensured residents that we wouldn’t continue to send information that would no longer be relevant to them after a certain period of time. We took cues, however, from the level of engagement we saw with subscribers and felt like we could interact with them one last time in our sign-off messages.

Overall, we created 33 text messages that were sent to 51 English-language and Spanish-language subscribers, resulting in 1,292 total text messages being delivered.

Eight people unsubscribed throughout the service, which typically came after busy news cycles, in which we sent more text messages than usual. English-language subscribers accounted for 88% of unsubscribes.

We let subscribers know that the service would be winding down because the clinic closed, and also shared with subscribers that Esperanza would be holding additional, smaller vaccination clinics. On the following day, we sent out an optional, two-question survey via text message to understand if subscribers found the service useful and if they shared information from the service with anyone else.

Additionally, we introduced our neighborhood newsletter project. As an optional feature, we asked subscribers to participate in a survey about the newsletter, we let them know we would be offering a new resource-oriented project in the form of a newsletter, and asked that they give us feedback to help shape that product, too. Survey participation would come with a $10 CashApp payment.

Four subscribers responded to our survey about the texting service — two subscribed to the English-language list and two subscribed to the Spanish-language list.

Here’s a rundown of the survey responses:

  • All four subscribers ranked the service as useful
  • One subscriber said they shared information from the service with someone. One subscriber said they did not share information.
  • One subscriber described the service as “excente.”

By providing this texting service, we learned that it is incredibly important to make translated, hyperlocal resources accessible to your audience. Above all else, a stalwart tenet of this work and project is that what we offer needs to be for the community, not about the community.

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