Guest Column: October 2020

A motion graphic of rows of smart phones and figures of people connected by moving dots. The phone screens alternate showing "Alert" and a giant exclamation point.


But if you need it, you sure don’t want to miss it

Jim Womble,
Executive Vice President and Board Member,
First Orion

UNFORTUNATELY, CONTACT TRACING remains a very relevant subject these days. With COVID numbers rising in many states, even as we head into the winter flu season, it’s more important than ever to quickly find people who have been exposed so they can be tested and go into quarantine, if need be.

But these are strange times even without the pandemic. This crisis comes at a moment when many people’s cell phones have become almost useless for calls to or from anyone out of their own contacts list. Here’s the problem: As cell phone technology has become increasingly sophisticated, so have the telepredators. But up until about four years ago, the harassment was primarily coming from debt collectors and telemarketers. Then, in 2016, scam calls just exploded onto the scene.

“Back in 2013, I might have gotten one scam call a week—maybe,” writes First Orion CEO Charles Morgan in his book Now What? The Biography of a (Finally) Successful Startup. “By 2016, I was getting one every day. Incidentally, there’s a big difference between ‘spam’ and ‘scam.’ Spam refers to the unwanted calls, nuisance calls. Scam tries to take its target to the cleaners.”

This had severe ramifications for consumers, the phone networks, and for businesses. “Increasingly,” writes Morgan, “you couldn’t call anyone who wasn’t a contact, because they wouldn’t answer…. But one person’s problem is another person’s opportunity.”

As it happened, back in 2016 First Orion had begun working on a spam/scam-protection product that we initially named “Caller YD”—Y as in why. The breakthrough idea was to show words and images on people’s mobile phone screens instead of phone numbers. I’ll explain in detail in a minute. That product launched in 2017, and, as I write this, it enables some 110 million T-Mobile and Sprint customers to take back their cell phones from the scammers.

And since March 2020, it has enabled tens of millions of Americans—across the nation—to be quickly notified if they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus.


I WAS PART of the original team that would eventually become Acxiom. As a longtime friend and colleague of Charles Morgan’s, I was also an early supporter of the startup First Orion. Then, in February of this year, Charles called and asked me to come on staff fulltime. The company is going gangbusters, and there’s more work than any of us can adequately handle in a day. I came aboard on March 2. About 10 days later, the country was officially in a pandemic.

Those shocking early days reminded us of the period right after 9/11. Back then, we at Acxiom tried to help by feeding the names of the attackers into our comprehensive database. We found the address of terrorist Mohamed Atta and were able to link him to other possible perpetrators. Eventually we arranged to be subpoenaed by the FBI, so that our private data could be used to help the U.S. government tie up all the loose ends.

Fast-forward to March 2020. As First Orion senior management contemplated what this pandemic would mean for the country and what we could do to help, someone—I can’t remember who—came up with the idea of using our branded call technology to help the Arkansas Department of Health with contact tracing.

First Orion’s Call Enhancement division offers this technology in two levels. The first, called “Inform,” shows up to 15 characters instead of an unknown 1-888 number. For example, on your cell phone screen you would see the words “AR COVID Team” instead of an unrecognized number. We’ve found that this more than doubles the answer rate. In some cases, it results in a nearly 100-percent answer rate.

The higher level of this branded call technology is called “Engage,” and it comes with what we call rich content. With Engage, when your cell phone rings you might see a full-color Home Depot logo and the message, “We’re delivering your refrigerator today between 2 and 4 pm. Click here if someone will be home….” Those answer rates are huge. Envision a pizza delivery guy, or Uber Eats, or Grubhub delivering from a local restaurant carrying $60 worth of perishable inventory, and they get lost. What do they do? They call the person who placed the order. If it shows up as 1-888 or some other weird number the person doesn’t know, he’s not going to answer. But if it says “Grubhub with your order,” he’ll pick up immediately. So the business justification for this technology is tremendous.

But to get Engage to work, your handset would have to be enabled with First Orion technology. There are several ways that can be done, but even so, there are more handsets in this country that are already set up to receive the branded 15-character Inform display—some 110 million, a third of the cell phones in the United States. That’s enough to make Inform a game changer in the all-important process of COVID contact tracing. So beginning in March, we set out to provide that service free of charge, and not just in Arkansas, but in all U.S. states and municipalities. We call this our COVID Outreach Program. In the words of our Outreach team leader, “We at First Orion support this COVID Outreach initiative because it’s the right thing to do.”


I’M NOT WRITING this to pat First Orion on the back for our largesse. My purpose here is to (a) make the point that technology can be used for more than just increasing financial profits; and to (b) encourage other companies that have benefitted so much from the tech boom to think of ways they also can “give back.” We all need to do what we can to help our country and our communities during this trying time.

At this writing, we have about 20 states and counties and municipalities using the program. Washington State’s King County—Seattle—is using it. Connecticut and Massachusetts are using it. The District of Columbia just signed up last week. I think San Diego County is close to adopting it as well.

The process is very simple. It takes literally 10 minutes to set up. Let’s use D.C. as an example. We contact them and offer the service. They say, “Yes, please. Use ‘DC COVID trace’” or something like that, and they give us a phone number to use in the program. All we do is type those 14 characters into our system and link it to that particular number. Then, because our technology is inside the T-Mobile network, every call made from that number will be branded “DC COVID trace.”

And that’s only the beginning. Every phone call is made by a real human. In Arkansas, the Department of Health has 255 people making these contact tracing calls from Department of Health cell phone numbers that are using our branded technology. When we were just presenting the program to them, we did a comparison. Say they had made 50 calls the previous day from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., and the answer rate was 40 percent. The next day, using our branded call saying “AR COVID Team,” the answer rate shot up to 90 percent. And bear in mind, we’re not talking percentages just for technology’s sake: Some of the people answering these phone calls might otherwise die.

Once a call is answered, my understanding is that the recipient is given the name of the positive-testing person they were exposed to and the critical time frame. “So you need to be very careful, watch your symptoms, or go get tested, or both.”

How long will we offer this program? Probably as long as the country needs it—but just to put a stake in the ground, we’ve promised to continue it through August of 2021. In the meantime, I have some valuable advice for anyone reading this: Wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing, stay safe and vigilant. This is one branded call that we hope you never have to answer.