How to Use Twilio to send SMS messages to your users

MargaretDevelopment Tools, Legal Product DesignLeave a Comment


Smart Chicago published a Civic Innovation Toolkit on how to use Twilio to be able to send phone messages to your target users or clients. It gives an overview of what kind of resources you can use, and what kind of projects & use cases you can use it for.

Twilio is a cloud communications platform that allows web apps to make and receive phone calls and SMS text messages. You’ve probably used Twilio at some point even if you’re weren’t aware of it. If you’ve ever received a text message when your cab has arrived, your food gets sent out for delivery, or if you’ve received text messages from campaigns – you probably were interacting using Twilio.  The Smart Chicago Collaborative offers Twilio to developers in Chicago looking to build civic apps to solve civic problems in Chicago as part of our developer resource offerings.


The real strength of Twilio is ease of use. With just a little bit of time and code, you can create civic apps that send out SMS messages or make phone calls. Below the fold, Twilio’s representative in Chicago Greg Baugues gives us a demo of the tool.

Introduction to Twilio

Twilio uses a set of APIs (the method computers use to talk to each other) to enable web apps to make and receive phone calls and SMS text messages. It’s essentially buying a phone for your web app. When the user sends a text to your number, it’s really sending a text to your web app.

How Twilio Works

To get started with Twilio, you first purchase a phone number. The cost for a phone number is about $1/month and Twilio provides $20 in free credit to new users so that you can play around with the service.

Once you have the phone number, you can use the Twilio API to have your app create and receive HTTP requests. When the app gets the request, it can generate a response that can be sent back through the Twilio API. So, if you wanted to build an app that you could text for information – for example, “when is my bus arriving?” – you can use Twilio to communicate with your users through text messaging.

Getting started with Twilio

Twilio makes it easy for new users to with their Try Twilio feature. You can simply go to their website, create an account, and it will guide you through the process.

Twilio also has documentation on how to use their service.

If you’re a non-profit interested in using Twilio, they also offer discounted pricing. For more information on that, visit

Some Examples of Civic Apps using Twilio

TextMyBus – Built by Code for America for the  the Detroit Department of Transportation. This app lets riders text a number to see when the next bus is.

Affordable Care Act Outreach App – Using a combination of tools like Wufoo and Twilio, Smart Chicago is helping LISC with their outreach by building a tool that enables organizers to send text reminders to sign up for health insurance to residents. –   Promptly is a text messaging notification system. Promptly is designed with its users in mind: it is easy to use, convenient, and flexible. It also sends text messages automatically — just load a list of recipients and Promptly will send the text at the right time.

Textizen – Textizen collects rich, real-time data via text message (SMS) to unlock public participation for people, wherever they are.

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