On Think Tanks and Mobile Technology

Joining the Brookings Institution, and followed not long after by the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute made a splash in the mobile app world last week with the release of the first Official Cato Institute iPhone Application. The first release of Cato's app features access to the Cato@Liberty blog, a native podcast client and direct access to Cato's YouTube content, and policy studies and scholar op-eds in major publications. You can view screen shots and read more about the features in a blog post I authored the day of the app's release.

As Robert Bluey, Director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation, noted earlier this week, the release of the three applications by Brookings, Cato, and Heritage prompted Nancy Scola at Personal Democracy Forum's techPresident blog to ask, "...does anyone actually use this stuff?" and "...is anyone seeking out these apps as they seek out research, news, and points of view?" Be sure to check out Rob's comments here and here.

Here at Cato, we saw over 2,000 downloads in just 36 hours. As one of the most well-known public policy research foundations in the world, this wasn't too surprising, but we are nonetheless very proud and encouraged by consumers' expressed enthusiasm, especially given that we spent very little money to develop the application. Like Heritage, we don't have access to the demographic data on the app's consumers, although we've received some very positive feedback from media, Hill staff, and other stakeholders in the public policy arena. We are also monitoring and encouraging people to use the #Cato20 hashtag on Twitter, which we are using as a primary feedback loop for people using the application.

But despite this instant success, Nancy's questions still remain. The Obama campaign's development of a proprietary iPhone app was nothing short of a total game-changer in the 2008 election, empowering volunteers with all sorts of tools (phone banking, canvassing tools with interactive maps and voter lists, along with scripts and on-demand campaign platform information, among other features). Do think tanks need tools like this? At Cato, a non-profit research foundation, we never ask anyone to do anything - we don't organize politically. We publish research papers and books (along with other media offerings), and host seminars, workshops, and forums for interested constituents. Our only real need is a steady stream of resources. So it is also interesting to note, then, that Apple won't allow donation buttons in iPhone apps, ostensibly because they don't want to be responsible for ensuring that the total amount of an intended donation actually reaches its destination.

Does this render a mobile application for a think tank useless? I'm not sure that it does, especially since Cato's mission is described thus:

In an era of sound bites and partisanship, Cato remains dedicated to providing clear, thoughtful, and independent analysis on vital public policy issues. Using all means possible — from blogs, Web features, op-eds and TV appearances, to conferences, research reports, speaking engagements, and books — Cato works vigorously to present citizens with incisive and understandable analysis.

A mobile application, then, helps the Cato Institute to continue to develop inroads with stakeholders at all levels by dispersing and distributing information resources to anyone with the technology. And just because Cato doesn't organize people, or ask anyone to write letters to their Congressman or Congresswoman (for example), doesn't mean that there aren't a broad swath of libertarians around the world who are passionate about spreading the message of free markets, individual responsibility, limited government and peace - so having the Cato Institute's scholarship in their hand wherever they are only helps them to achieve their goals.


Scola also critiques each application's usability factors, particularly how each organizes content. Her suggestion that it is a drawback to Cato's app for content to organized by date is a fair one, given that we organize content on our website that enables users to search for content by scholar, by research area, by publication title, etc. But subsequent releases of the application will likely remedy this, and at the risk of tipping our hand, we will look to incorporate other features that permit users to share content across the social web directly from their mobile device. We are also currently working to develop applications for other mobile devices and platforms (including Android), and will announce them when they become available to users. We have also begun making many of our books available in e-reader format, including Kindle and Nook.

The lesson from think tank applications, and it will be interesting to continue to monitor how each organization continues to develop their respective technologies, is that, as with any other technology or communications strategy, it's important to know: a) who you are, and b) what your goals are. Only from a coherent understanding of both can organizations from city council campaigns to global public policy research foundations develop and implement tactics that help realize those strategic goals.

George Scoville is the Manager of New Media at the Cato Institute.

Obama, the Halo Effect, and What's Changed

I am not a Mac user. But I'll freely admit I had one of my monitors refreshing with MacRumorsLive's coverage of the Steve Jobs WWDC keynote, with an audio feed from Moscone West running in the background. When it comes to operating systems, I am a swing voter. Heck, I even identify a little with the poor PC guy in the ads, and think the Mac guy is a smarmy little twerp. Nonetheless, I'm thinking of casting my first "vote" for a Mac in 2008. It's not that I dislike my Windows system. Every other PC I've had has been badly outrun by the combination of bloatware outrunning the memory allocation, but not this one. I have my XP tuned the way I like it, but it's a lame duck.  It's the unfortunate fact of an uninspiring new standardbearer, Vista, has me seriously thinking about switching to the Cult of Steve.

But it's not only that. The sheer gravitational pull of the Mac / iPhone / iPod halo is simply too much. It's irrational. I see lots of friends switching to Macs and tapping away on iPhones. It was different back in the early '90s back when Mac was this goofy platform you couldn't extend with a clunky black and white GUI. Or even last year when those suckers stood in line to shell out $600 for a buggy, locked down phone. But for me, this July 11th will be a different story.

Doesn't this remind you a little of the current political climate?

iPhone SDK + Elections = New Opportunities?

While the iPhone 2.0 has already gotten significant coverage by the press and bloggers alike, I'd like to take a different look at the new iPhone SDK and API.  As a new media guru and a believer that technology, when used properly, can literally make the difference between winning and losing elections, I see a huge opportunity with the new iPhone 2.0 firmware.

While I was not fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see Steve Jobs' presentation in person, I was reading live updates every minute thanks to MacRumors Live Feed.  One of the items that immediately caught my eye was Apple's Location API. The Location API is used in two of the applications that Apple demoed today -- Loopt, a location-aware network that actually generates a map and shows on the map where your friends currently are, and the Mobile News Network, powered by the Associated Press, that makes use of the API by automatically pulling news from local sources.

Technology advances in campaigns have allowed them to engage volunteers from the comfort of their own home.  John McCain and Barack Obama already have massive Volunteer HQ applications that allow volunteers to contact the media, make calls from home, and more.  When I worked on Senator Santorum's campaign in 2006, we wanted to take this one step further and allow our volunteers to go door-to-door for us by simply logging in to a website, removing the need for them to come into the campaign office.  A lot of barriers stood in the way of this -- the technology wasn't available to us, and the amount of management, development, and overhead to run something like this was tremendous.

Using the iPhone's new location API and GPS, functionality like this could be easily built.  Based on the user's location, an application could use the API to create a door-to-door list and display it on the map.  When they were on their way to a given house, all they would have to do is tap the pin on the map, and they'd be able to get driving directions from their current location and instructions and information for the household.  If the campaign wanted to get further information or to try to use the walk to microtarget the voters at the household, it could easily add a script with questions to this -- and the responses would automatically be synced to the campaign's system after completion.

At an even lower level, if the person at the household wanted to receive e-mail updates from the campaign, there could be a field that allows volunteers to type in their e-mail address and become instantly subscribed to the campaign's e-mails.  Similarly, if that person was torn between the candidates and wanted additional information, the volunteer could input their e-mail address and the system could automatically send a document with information about the candidate.

This is only one way that I see the new SDK for the iPhone potentially reshaping the entire playing field for politics.  As I discussed earlier, the phone from home functionality is becoming more and more mainstream -- indeed, it is one of the pieces of the Mission Control software package that I have built.  Taking this a step further, there could be a home calling application on the iPhone which provides volunteers with the phone numbers, question, and script, and after each call would automatically sync with the campaign's database.  It would be as easy to use as plugging in your headphones and loading an application.  There are many other possibilities as well, and I encourage you to discuss them in the comments.

The iPhone 2.0 represents another massive step forward in mobile technology for consumers and businesses.  It also presents a wide array of functions that could give Republicans a serious leg up in elections.

Aaron Marks is a founding partner of Three Group, LLC, a Pittsburgh-based new media firm that focuses on providing technology-based solutions for Republican candidates and organizations, and in particular has built Web 2.0 campaign management software called Mission Control.  Aaron also worked in new media and voter outreach on Senator Rick Santorum's 2006 re-election campaign.

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