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Welcome to Coleman Country

B.C. politician Rich Coleman has released his own iPhone app. Will it lead the way to a smartphone political future, or a dead end?

I’m still waiting for Rich Coleman to get back to me.

I was trying out the B.C. cabinet minister’s new iPhone app -- Coleman Country -- when I came across an option to “Message Rich” hidden in the “More” section of the app. I selected it, typed my message (I asked him how long it took to develop the app and whether other politicians were doing anything similar) and pressed “Submit”. Away went my message -- I think. The trouble is, there’s no indication of how the message is sent -- is it a text message, an Instant Message, Tweet, Facebook message or some entirely different type of message. There’s also no indication of whether it’s a one-way or two-way communication -- can Rich reply to messages or not? The app doesn’t say.

While waiting for the Housing Minister and MLA for Fort Langley-Aldergrove to get back to me, I’ve been exploring Coleman Country and thinking about the possibilities of political apps. Colemen Country includes Coleman’s Twitter feed (@colemancountry), news releases from the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, photos, videos, general BC government news, a “Did You Know?” section and that mysterious “Message Rich” option. It’s a well-made app, very slick and responsive. According to a story in The Province, it’s the first app to be released by a B.C. politician.

It may be a B.C. first, but Coleman Country is not unique in the wider world. There aren’t many iPhone and iPad political apps yet, but they’re growing in number. Probably the most well known is “Organizing for America”, created for Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign in 2008. Unsuccessful Republican candidate Ron Paul also developed an app for that campaign though his -- unlike Obama’s -- cost $0.99, to demonstrate his capitalist credentials, I assume. Ontario’s Tim Hudack created an app for his successful bid for the Conservative leadership in that province. There’s an “Official Number 10” iPhone app for the British prime minister and a handful of others, but not as many as I would have expected by now, given the relatively low entry barriers for creating and distributing smartphone apps.

Politicians have, of course, always embraced the latest technology -- whether whistlestop train campaigns and telegraphs in the 19th century, television debates and ads in the 20th century, or Facebook, Twitter and videogames in our own time. But will iPhone (or Android or Blackberry) apps have any impact?

It's easy to see the potential. How about rival HST referendum apps? Or an app that masquerades as a candidate's official app but is really an attack app created by the candidate's opponent? If I were a political strategist, I’d be working on a strategy right now. At present, apps are still enough of a novelty that you can count on some free publicity if you develop one that’s different or innovative -- as The Province story about Coleman Country demonstrated.

I can’t see much use for Coleman Country. If I want to find out what Coleman is tweeting, I’ll follow him in Twitter -- I won’t reach for my iPhone and launch a special app to do so. The same goes for his Youtube videos and news releases. Even if I were a Coleman supporter or constituent, I don’t think I’d have a use for this app, even during the heat of a provincial election or (dare I say it, Mr. Coleman?) a leadership campaign. There’s also the practicality question -- if all 85 MLAs developed their own apps, how could you follow more than one or two?

I wonder what Rich Coleman thinks about that. I’ll ask him, if he ever responds to my message.

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