mobile technology

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.

What Will the Future of Mobile Messaging Mean for the Future of Get-Out-the-Vote Operations?

BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT: Let's take time to think about how we can get ahead of the strategic curve in the long term while coming up with tactics to win in the short term.

Hat tip to Katie Harbath for tweeting this news item: "Three-Quarters of the World's Messages Sent By Mobile"

"According to TNS Global, 74% of the world’s digital messages were sent through a mobile device in January 2009, a 15% increase over the previous year.

"As for developed countries, the PC e-mail remains the most popular message method, but its use is waning.

"In Japan, 40 out of 100 e-mails sent are from a mobile device. In North America, 69% of those using e-mail on their mobile phone use it daily, high compared with 43% worldwide."

I've written previously about the Pew Internet & American Life Project's "Future of the Internet Report," which has two interesting observations: (1) the mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the internet for most people in the world in 2020, and (2) the divisions between personal time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further erased for everyone who is connected, and the results will be mixed in their impact on basic social relations. The National Taxpayers Union put things to practice recently, launching a text messaging advocacy service, a creative tool to enhance that organization's grassroots operations.

Rebuilding our party doesn't only mean taking an inventory of every tool that's available and seeing how those tools fit campaigns and party organizations today; it also means seeing what the trends might be 5, 10 or 20 years from now and creating tools that can put us ahead of the curve. I do not have the proper fusing of sufficient technical skills with amazing creativity that many programmers and coders do ... which is why Code Red has been launched.

So despite my relative technical ignorance, I think a few observations need to be made about how campaigns might be affected, and where can campaigns might go, with increased use of mobile messaging. Yes, all parts of the campaign will be affected from communications on down. But increased use of mobile devices by voters to get most of their information will have a special impact on GOTV operations:

  • Voter identification, persuasion and GOTV efforts will have to be more integrated. With personal and work time being merged as well as physical and virtual reality, campaigns and party organizations will have to embark on a long term, on-going voter identification efforts to see when and how often they receive messages and Internet content.
  • With social networking sites and programs going mobile, GOTV messages will have to balance simplicity with engaging material. GOTV messages won't only come in the form of SMS and MMS. These alerts will come via Facebook and Twitter as well, where more and more this social networking activity takes place on iPhones and BlackBerries. Sending simple information on polling locations as well as early and mail-in ballot voting will have to become more easily searchable on any mobile device. Voters will also want a quick and easy way to engage with the campaign or party organization if they want to: a mobile version of an "action center" will have to be developed.
  • As more and more messages are sent via mobile devices, the tools developed by campaigns and party organizations might need to expand horizontally to include different versions for different devices. The Obama app for the iPhone has somewhat started this thought. As the web will play a greater role in helping campaigns organically enhance their grassroots activism, those with different devices will need different versions of tools to suit their personal needs when receiving GOTV messages and spreading those messages to their neighbors, co-workers and family members.

Those are just some of my thoughts. I may be right. I may be way off base. How do you think campaigns will change with increased use of mobile devices?

In the meantime, RebuildTheParty.com reminds us all about the basics of GOTV ... Go Tedisco! 

NTU Launches Text Messaging Advocacy Service

This is another creative way to use technology to enhance grassroots operations, making activism into "insta-activism." A message to campaign managers for the 2010 cycle: build your own tools to organize voter indetification, voter communication/persuasion, and GOTV efforts. -Matt Moon

Last week, the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union announced its use of an integral technology -- text messaging -- to activate concerned citizens nationwide on important matters of fiscal policy at the federal and state levels. Taxpayers can opt in to NTU's free service* by texting "FIGHT" to 54608.

It's no secret that the right is two steps behind the left when it comes to technological innovation. The most notable early-adopter of texting outreach was the Obama presidential campaign, which used it with great success to draw crowds, spread messages, generate new activists, and involve them in events. And although texting has been popularized elsewhere (i.e. the entertainment industry -- not that anyone at NTU watches or votes for contestants on American Idol), NTU is the first grassroots taxpayer advocacy group to use it on a national level. We see texting as a vital membership and community development tool to create a two-way dialogue with the nation's most important constituency: taxpayers.

Some numbers that most TNR readers are familiar with:

  • The typical American averages 357 text messages per month, but only makes 204 phone calls.
  • About 2.5 TRILLION text messages were sent last year alone, and that number is expected to grow to at least 3.3 TRILLION this year.

NTU has maintained a long and growing list of activists willing to e-mail their government representatives on specific issues -- something it will continue to do -- but employing mobile messaging technology puts NTU ahead of the curve when it comes to grassroots activism. Congressional offices inundated with e-mails can easily ignore those messages by hitting "delete," but nothing sends a more powerful message -- one that cannot be ignored -- than thousands upon thousands of phone calls that could shut down the Capitol switchboard, as was the case during recent bailout and stimulus votes. The same is true for State Legislatures across the country: A voice on the phone has infinitely more influence and immediacy than an e-mail.

We alert. You call. They listen. Text FIGHT to 54608 now!

*Other than the cost of one's text messaging plan. Subscribers will receive an automated confirmation message with more information and opt-out instructions.

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