I recently visited the DC Palm User Group for a presentation they were having on mobile computers and politics and got an interesting lesson on how mobile technology is shaping, and will influence more in the future, the ability of issues and people to be involved within the political landscape (voter, lobby person, or running for office). So in this article, we will take a look at how mobile computers in particular can be of assistance and hindrance to politics, while at the same time underlining that no device or process can succeed unless people are behind its use.
So what is a common (politically-defined) view of mobility?
Somehow, I imagine that many of you see politicians running up and down Capitol Hill with BlackBerries buzzing and emails being replied to; people with laptops on subways and trains viewing documents; and the occasional and embarrassing ring of a phone while a council member is giving a speech on political responsibility.
Well, to some extent you are not wrong. These are some of the (more seen) applications of mobile technology within politics. However, with changing times comes changing methods of using those processes and tools. Mobile devices are not just there because they do, but because they connect the person with their audience more quickly (yet also more impersonally). They enable more instant feedback of important issues (such as a changed time for a meeting), as well as a dynamic means to connect with information and people for more comprehensive information about whom is being served (such as using wireless PDAs as data collection devices in door-to-door campaigning). With the state of devices as being as powerful as computers of just a few years ago (and a boat load more capable), many politicians see the intersection of mobile devices and services with their political ideas and campaigns as not just an accessory add-on, but the key to moving themselves, and their audiences into the 21st century.
What does mobility look like in the hands of politicians?
Don’t get me wrong; I would love to see Treos used as replacements to laptops for all but the most applicable of users. Isn’t it just a lot easier to carry into/out of meetings a folding keyboard and a mobile phone-sized device, rather than a padded briefcase with a binder and laptop? They would be able to download email and respond instantly as well as have the apps most needed to carry on day-to-day tasks. The fact is, it is not the device that is paramount to a politician, but the means that the device leads to that makes or breaks the device (just because the device is in the hand, doesn’t mean that it’s a compelling enough solution to break into the work flow).
This is the reason why the RIM/NTP case is so important. It is not so much the device, but the service is tied to much so to the device that to take away that tether (the working device and network service) to the valuable public (those people that mean enough to someone that you have their contact information), that you take away their ability to do their job to their tastes. Many times you may have heard that solutions and services sell, not devices. For politicians using mobile technology, this is almost always true.
What does a mobile solution look like in politics then?
You cannot have a successful service without a large influx of resources for training, implementation, device and software support, and then (most importantly) enthusiasm from the people that you are asking to use it. For example, the political candidate might have a smartphone and a blog because they were told to him that associating with these products will gain mind-share amongst the technologically elite. But, if the device crashes all the time, is too complex to understand, or time just does not permit using a blog to convey ideas and concepts, then the strength of the technology is lost on the lack of firm planning and decreased user confidence.
My easy recommendation is to point you to a resource that I was given (hooray for door prizes) called The Politics-to-Go Handbook: A Guide to Using Mobile Technology in Politics created and distributed by the Institute for Politics Democracy & the Internet (www.ipdi.com). I am still working through the booklet now, but the many examples of the use of Internet and mobile technology should point any of you who are planning to move into politics and still be avid mobile computer users. The key of using mobile devices here though are like in any technology applied field, know the hardware and software, but above all know the problem and seek to solve it efficiently (and that may not need a mobile device at all).