The importance of social media in politics was made clear by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run. But there is a new frontier of Web 2.0 technologies that politicians and political groups are slowly starting to embrace: the smartphone app. These apps have the potential to reshape how politicians communicate, raise money and get out the vote.

The biggest player on the smartphone app stage is Apple’s iPhone. But the BlackBerry, Android, Palm Pre and other smartphones are likely to play a growing role as well.

The age of political apps began in October 2008 when the Obama campaign released its free Obama08 app. It organized a person’s iPhone contacts to enable supporters to call any friends located in important electoral districts. The Obama app also had a donation interface, news feeds, local campaign events, and a list of Obama’s positions on major issues.

The impact of the Obama App on the campaign is hard to say. But, as we approach the 2010 midterm elections, other politicians and political groups have developed apps to advance their issues. Below are some app highlights.

Apps for Politicians

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Newell for Congress App

A few politicians are already ahead of the app curve. The biggest name on the national stage with an app is Sen. Sam Brownback, who is running for governor of Kansas. The SamForGov app, like Obama08, was developed to engage voters and provide real-time information about the candidate. The same is true for John Kasich’s Kasich for Ohio app, which is supporting his Ohio gubernatorial run, and Felton Newell’s Newell for Congress app, which was developed to support Newell’s campaign for California’s 33rd District.

“I’ve received lots of feedback from people who I run into and I show them the app…that it does really communicate who I am as a person and what my campaign is about,” Newell said in a phone interview.

Apps for Keeping up with Congress, White House

Aside from candidate apps, there is a category of apps designed to provide political enthusiasts with a significant amount of Web 2.0 capabilities. At the top of this list is the 99-cent Congress app (also available in Congress+ and Congress Pro upgrades).

Developed by Cohen Research Group, the Congress app is loaded with information on members of the House and the Senate, including photos, office addresses, contact numbers, website links, campaign news, and other details that put users in direct contract with the U.S. Congress.

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Real Time Congress App

Another big hitter in this category is the Real Time Congress app, which was developed by Sunlight Labs. Real Time Congress provides users with a number of information feeds related to House and Senate floor debates; a documents feature that provides immediate access to Congressional Budget Office, Congressional Research Service, and Office of Management and Budget documents as they are posted; real-time notices from the Democrat and Republician whips; and hearing schedules, among other features.

Finally, there is the White House app. Released in January by the Obama administration’s technology team, it offers users access to information about the White House, from blog updates, video and photos, to news and a live feature with real-time data.

While the app hardly pushes the limits of what advanced smartphones are capable of, the White House app offers something more important in terms of the the “culture of no,” which is how Peter Corbett describes the bureaucratic impediments to technological progress in Washington.

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Peter Corbett

Corbett, CEO of the interactive strategy, experiential marketing and content creation solutions company iStrategyLabs, said the White House app is an example for other government agencies to emulate.

“If the White House is using YouTube and building iPhone applications and is using idea sourcing platforms for letting citizens vote on stuff, that’s giving all the other agencies permission and an example to follow for when they try and do new things for their constituents,” Corbett said.

Apps for Democracy

Corbett and iStrategyLabs are engaged in an emerging category of apps that support open government initiatives. In 2008, Vivek Kundra, former chief technology officer of Washington, DC, and current chief information officer of the U.S. federal government, approached Corbett with a question about how to make the new open government data sets usable for the average citizen.

Corbett responded with the Apps for Democracy contest that offered technologists the potential to win as much as $30,000 in prize money for the development of apps that use the data catalog, and help government function better for citizens. When the contest ended, 47 iPhone, Facebook and web applications had been submitted. iStrategyLabs estimated they are worth more than $2.6 million to Washington.

That contest inspired Sunlight Labs’ Apps for America contest and others in Germany, Belgium, Australia and elsewhere. More importantly, Apps for Democracy demonstrated that the technology development crowd has significant interest in participating in these kinds of initiatives.

“We see that there is a passionate local base of technologists that finally see a way to really apply their skills to the process of democracy and government,” Corbett said. “Typically they [technologists] were never engaged. They are generally focused on what’s going on on TechCrunch and Twitter and not really focused on what’s happening on Huffington Post and C-SPAN. Now what we are seeing is because there is this way of tapping into citizen technologists, they are becoming much more engaged in democracy and America itself.”

Walking Edge, Ballot Signing App

Technologists are already creating apps that can make an impact in elections and ballot initiatives. The recent election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts was aided by an app developed by Republican Web Development. The firm created an app for GOP candidates called Walking Edge. The Atlantic’s Chris Good wrote that the app offered canvassers a database of where undecided voters and candidate-supporters live. The app used geo-location tools and Google Maps, and after canvassers made contact with a person they could update the database in real-time.

i-eb9963199e985c84dc98fa425f770304-Verafirma-app.gifAnother app being developed by the California-based company Verafirma enables users to sign a ballot initiative using an iPhone. It is currently being used by the Citizen Power Campaign to gather signatures for an initiative aimed at prohibiting public employee unions from using member dues for political activities. The app itself is the first time anyone has used a touch-screen phone for gathering signatures.

“The problem with the system today is that if you have a good idea to change California or improve the future of our state, the first question you are asked is do you have $2 million to hire paid signature gatherers to collect signatures to get your initiative on the ballot,” Verafirma co-founder Jude Barry said. “We think technology changes that question.”

App development has the potential to significantly influence democracy. During the 2008 presidential race, Obama’s campaign had a clear edge using technology. Peter Corbett suggests the technology gap for the GOP has now been closed.

“It’s an arms race for who can use the most technology the best to either raise funds or to reach constituents,” Corbett said.

Steven Davy is a freelance journalist, and freelance radio reporter/producer. He regularly covers the defense industry and security related issues for UPI. Additionally he hosts a current affairs newsmagazine radio show called the Nonchalant Café Hour which broadcasts live in Kalamazoo, Mich. Steven recently created Exploring Conversations as a multimedia website examining the language of music for his graduate thesis project at Michigan State University.

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