Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Political Apportunity

Yesterday, the White House announced that it was releasing an iPhone app for "iPhone users on the go" who will "tune in through their phones." The use of radio metaphors may be telling, since the administration seems to be thinking about the device in terms of one-to-many traditional broadcast models.

Soon critics were asking if it was really a more efficient method of delivery for the citizen-on the go, or if it was simply a "propaganda tool."

But that's where this app, despite its benefits as a window onto White House goings-on (soon to be augmented with a Web site that'll work on other smartphones), is ever so slightly questionable. Because under the guise of providing access, it smacks of a propagandizing mechanism--simply because though it provides information, it doesn't seem to allow for "customer feedback" or even debate in the form of blog comments.

My own gripe with the iPhone app, which I have downloaded onto my own device, is really twofold:

1) It doesn't do much with the ubiquity offered by a mobile device and simply repackages existing web content for the smaller screen. Geolocation, sound input, uploading of information captured from the iPhone camera . . . none of these technologies are actually used. We don't even know what regions of the country are using the app at any given time or what kind of content is generating buzz. This tends to be a problem with a lot of political apps, which are often little more than press release vehicles.

2) This is another case of the White House using a proprietary platform uncritically, one that has an exclusive contract with a single cellular provider, AT&T and therefore limits consumer choice of carriers and one that says what products developers can and can not publish on their device. Here is another opportunity to educate the public about how hardware and software decisions have political implications squandered in the name of hype and PR. Although the White House promises "we’ll also launch, a mobile-ready version of that is optimized for any internet-enabled mobile device, including many other phones," the choice to launch with iPhone first may be telling.

Update: Apparently I am not alone. The The Oh My Gov! blog is calling it a "big disappointment."

Conspicuously absent from the application is the President's 2010 budget, details of upcoming proposals, including the a summary of the Health Care Bill, a tool to track Obama's campaign promises, information about the makeup of the President's cabinet, and the White House's plan for economic recovery and elimination of the ever expanding $12.3 trillion federal debt.

Given these absences, the utility of the application is limited to members of the press who want to keep up with the President's every move and those still infatuated with Obama. Others who wish to engage in the political discussion on a deeper level, hold the Oval Office accountable for its promises to say, eliminate wasteful spending from the federal budget line by line, and obtain a detailed understanding of just how fast a few trillions dollars are spent should continue digging for the information online or just read from the New York Times application.

Also disappointing from this app, which is little more than a mobile version of the communications sections of the White House website, is a method of dialogue with constituents the Obama administration has become known for. It's a bit disappointing the makers of the app didn't build in a way for users to send their best ideas on improving things to the administration, pose and have questions answered, or vote on the ideas of others, including the ideas of the White House. Many of my best ideas occur when I am out and about, and things I see often jog my brain into action. And as we've all witnessed from the Red Cross' Haiti fundraising efforts, mobile phones can be a powerful platform for soliciting a quick response.

Thanks to Jeff Brazil for the link!

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