Mr. Smith Gets an iPhone

This is the first in a series of articles about top political apps for use on smartphones and tablets. You can hear more about these apps on Top 3 Podcast via the Wild Inspire Podcast Network. You can listen to the podcast after the jump.

U.S. Capitol in Black and WhiteSocial media dominated the 2010 elections, and is sure to continue in 2012. How can the public make better use of these new tools to learn more about incumbents, candidates, and their positions on the issues? More and more people are consuming their news on-line rather than through traditional television or newspaper channels. There are many online tools for learning where your congressman or senator stands on certain issues. But what about when you aren’t at your computer? Enter mobile apps. With a smartphone or tablet, mobile apps let people get their information whenever and wherever they want it. And political news apps are one of the best ways for political junkies and novices alike to stay informed.

Humans are skeptical by nature, and we very particular in our news sources. The public worries about the political “spin” that makes it harder to separate fact from fiction. In Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Jimmy Stewart’s character stages an epic filibuster to defend himself from trumped up charges of corruption. In an attempt to discredit him, political bosses in his home state manipulate the news media, twisting the facts and prompting constituents to send hundreds of letters and telegrams opposing Senator Smith.

With the 2012 elections well underway, what are the best mobile apps for political news? Most of the major national news organizations (and some local ones) have their own apps, a comprehensive news app that isn’t limited to one specific source is the best option. Other factors to keep in mind are:

  • When was the app updated last? Was the app designed for the 2010 election and hasn’t been updated for 2012? Does it work with older devices or only the newest ones?
  • What are the reviews? Does the developer have a website. blog, or Twitter account? Does the developer respond to customer suggestions or comments?
  • Don’t limit yourself to free apps. Paid apps often have free or lite versions that let you try the app out before deciding to spring for the full.

With those questions in mind, here are the top 3 political apps that have earned a place on my iPad and iPhone. These apps are only available on the iOS App Store, though similar apps maybe available on Android.

  1. Flipboard, Free (iPad/iPhone). While this isn’t specifically a political app, it is by far the best app for reading news from multiple sources on the iPad. You select “channels” from technology to current events by connecting to your Facebook or Twitter accounts (if you have one) or you can choose from one of the curated channels provided Flipboard. There are several devoted to Politics and political news sources. You can also add an RSS (real simple syndication) feed from your favorite blogs or read tweets from specific politicians. You are able to share articles via Twitter, Facebook, or save them to read later with services like Instapaper and Read It Later.The app displays articles information in magazine format, so rather than a static list of links you get the text, images, and videos from the article right within the app. An integrated web browser allows you to read full articles that may not display correctly.The app has been around since 2010 and consistently receives high praise from reviewers and is one of the top rated apps in the App Store. The company just released a version for the iPhone as well, and you can sync your channels between both devices. It also supports multiple accounts, which is especially useful if you share an iPad with a spouse or child that has different tastes in news.
  2. pTracker is a suite of apps developed for iOS by pTracker, LLC. They are “news discovery apps” that give you access to a wide variety of news and search options for news about nearly every elected official in the United States. A full description of each of the apps and their features is available on pTrackerapps.com as well as a free sample search so you can see how the apps work in real time.
    • politicoTracker (iPad, $4.99/iPhone, $9.99) News about federal, state, and local politicians grouped by all 50 states and key issues
    • govTracker (iPad, $4.99/iPhone $9.99): News about government agencies
    • campaignTracker (iPad, $4.99/iPhone, $0.99): News about campaign, issues, and election information
    • politicalTracker Twitter Edition, Free (iPad/iPhone): Lets you follow the Twitter feeds of federal, state, and local politicians

    What sets these apps apart from other news apps is real-time search and the ability to cross-reference an individual politician with specific issues or policies. It has includes an 8,000 name database, covering nearly every federal, state, and local politician in the United States, combined with nearly 25,000 news sources. The database doesn’t capture every politicians in the United States, but it is the most comprehensive, and is one of the few apps that includes state legislators. The apps also do not let you share articles via Twitter, but you can e-mail articles, save them off-line viewing. The apps have not been updated since early 2011, but according to the developer an update for politicoTracker’s iPad version has been submitted to Apple for review and should be available for download soon. Twitter integration is also in the works for a future release.

    The apps have a simple interface and are missing some features, like Twitter integration. But overall the apps work extremely well at simplifying your search for political news. I currently have campaignTracker and the Twitter versions on my devices, and intend to download politicoTracker once it is updated. The developer provides a lite version and a free sample search on its website so you can see the app in action before you buy.

  3. Election 2012, Free (iPhone). Mobile website for Android and Blackberry. This brand new app was developed by the New York Times to provide one click access to the latest campaign news. The app provides top political news free of charge, and provides you news from other sources like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Live election results are the highlight of the app. During the Iowa Caucuses on January 3 vote totals were continually updated throughout the night, and users were able to track votes as they came in from individual counties.The one caveat is that most of the apps’ content, including live election results, opinions, and video, requires a digital subscription to the New York Times. New digital subscribers can get 4 months for just 99 cents. After that, the cheapest plan is $15/month, which gives you access to Election 2012, the stand alone New York Times smartphone app, and the full New York Times website. If you are a NY Times subscriber, this is the app for you. It’s free sections of the app very useful present news in an easy to read format, so it’s worth the download. But digital subscription requirement will limit its usefulness for most casual users.

This list only begins to scratch the surface of what is available. In future articles, we’ll review directory apps for contacting your representatives and senators in Congress, advocacy apps that let you express your views on legislative issues, and specialty apps for following legislation or other government activity.

Do you have a favorite political app that’s available on iOS or Android? Add your suggestions in the comments below or post a message on Twitter @bismanapps. We may review it in a future article or Top 3 Podcast.

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