The big game is on -- and by that, we don't mean football, basketball, baseball or Angry Birds. We're talking about the biggest pastime in the U.S.: Watching (and taking part in) the current Republican primaries and the upcoming presidential elections.
After all, what could be more exciting? There's a president under fire from both sides of the aisle, a group of opposition contenders who are hurling more mud at each other than you'll find in a swamp and a media that's eager to publicize every misstatement and accusation.
If you're one of those who really wants to follow the play-by-play as it happens -- the debates, the ads, the back-and-forth on the talk shows, the Twitter conversations -- the best way to do it is via your mobile device.
In order to find the best apps for the job, some of the politically interested staffers here at Computerworld have tested six interesting election-related apps on our iPhones and/or Android phones. Four of these -- CNN Mobile, ElectionCaster, http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9224069/Election_fever_6_mobile_apps_that_can_keep_you_informed&pageNumber=2 and USA Election 2012 -- offer election-related news and information, either from a single publication or from a variety of sources. The other two offer insights on what the politicians are saying (PolitiFact Mobile) or let you have your say (VoterMap).
We've downloaded and installed each app, put it through its paces and figured out what it's good at, what it's not-so-good at and whether we want to keep it on our phones.
(Note: Some of these apps also have tablet versions. While we didn't test any of the apps on either an iPad or on an Android tablet, we have noted where separate versions exist.)
So if you're a politics junkie, or just an interested citizen, here are some apps you may want to try out.
Cable News Network
OS reviewed: iOS
Other OSes: Android (phones and tablets), iPhone, iPad, Symbian
CNN Mobile is a generic news app that is not specific to the election, although of course you can get election news on it.
It is a slick app, and supports swiping and using various gestures to get to the last and previous stories in any section, as well as to navigate around a particular story.
Videos play well, as one would expect. But to get access to the live version of CNN you'll need to register with the name of your cable or satellite provider as well as your username and password for the provider's site (this is true on the main CNN site as well).
Another nice touch: you can swipe the category list at the top of the home page to the right or left, so you can find all the various story topics.
I'm a big CNN fan and was prepared to love the app, but I was disappointed. When it comes to in-depth politics, it doesn't have a whole lot of 'there' there.
It's a perfectly reasonable general news repository, with stories organized according to topic -- top stories, world, U.S., politics, election, justice, entertainment, health and others. Within each of these categories is a list of eight or so stories and a few photos. When you choose a story, you can access the others in the category by swiping. At the end of each story is a list of related stories and, sometimes, videos.
But the photos, strangely, are not optimized for an iPhone 4S. They look more like funhouse photos -- which, depending on your feelings about any or all of the candidates, might not be a problem.
For more elections coverage, and for an experience that translates better to smartphones (to my iPhone, at any rate), you'll want to point your smartphone's browser to the mobile version of CNN's Election Center site. From here, you can access top election-related news stories and opinion pieces, as well as candidates' bios, information about upcoming primaries and a neat calendar view of upcoming political events (just tap on any of the highlighted dates).
And a bonus: If you look at the bottom of the Election Center mobile site, there's a link that says 'Full Site.' Tap on it, and you'll get access to the main CNN site. While it's not specific to mobile, it sure looks better on my iPhone, although I do have to use gestures to make the text bigger. At least the photos seem right.
Overall, I was disappointed with the downloadable CNN app. I was much happier navigating over to the mobile version of CNN's Election Center site, and from there to the CNN main site.
OSes reviewed: iPhone, Android
Other OSes: iPad
ElectionCaster sells itself as the "most comprehensive source for political news" and, true to its word, the app is a giant aggregator of online news and views from across the U.S. political spectrum.
To help you sort through the noise, the app divides its incoming streams into Top News, Top Tweets and Commentary, which you can filter by National or Local feeds.
Top News gathers stories from sites like The Miami Herald, The Huffington Post, New York Post, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard and Real Clear Politics -- though the news feed is inconsistently attributed. Sometimes you can see from the incoming stream that a news item is coming from The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal; others, you see only a writer's byline, or nothing, leaving you to have to click twice to reach the story's original source.
Same goes for Commentary, a somewhat random mashup of news analysis and opinion pieces -- most often you have to click through to the original source to see what it is you're reading, and from which media outlet.
I had problems with ElectionCaster's Top Tweets option -- I kept seeing Tweets from six days ago, no matter how many times I refreshed or reloaded. But even if the function were working correctly, it's a slower, second-rate way to monitor a Twitter feed.
A More option on the home screen offers a variety of other options. For example, a Polls listing takes you to data from Politico, HuffPost Pollster (the former Pollster.com) and RealClearPolitics -- a tolerable list, though the lack of Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog leaves a hole, as he was more consistently right in the 2008 election than any individual pollster.
A TalkBack option serves up emails and phone number for elected officials, primarily state reps and senators, and also lists contact info for something called My Media Faves, which turns out to be a TV-centric list of talking heads, in case you feel the urge to email Bill O'Reilly or Stephen Colbert. You can also link to Facebook or Twitter for easier sharing of any news postings.
(Incidentally, the Android version of ElectionCaster offers a richer variety of sharing options than the iPhone app -- in fact, in general I found the Android app easier to navigate and more visually appealing than the iPhone version.)
ElectionCaster's Blogs option rather amusingly lets you choose from Left, Center or Right orientation -- that's political orientation, though that's also the order in which they're physically presented on-screen. Left and Right blogs both include a cross-section of usual suspects, such as Politico, The Dish and Daily Kos on one side; National Review Online, Outside the Beltway and RedState on the other. Only four offerings appear as centrist: CNN PoliticalTicker, Factcheck.org, Hotline On Call and, curiously, Politics Daily, a site that ElectionCaster helpfully shows hasn't been updated in 45 weeks.
The modest length of the blogs list points up ElectionCaster's biggest drawback: You can't add or delete feeds, either to the Blogs or the News. That may not be a concern for political newbies or centrist users, but people with stronger opinions will miss the lack of customization.
Where does that leave ElectionCaster? It's a reasonably useful starter app for politically aware people who want to follow U.S. news and commentary in depth, but aren't passionate enough to feel the need to customize their experience. Whether, in our highly polarized political climate, there is anyone left who fits into that category, I'll leave that to the pundits to decide.
The New York Times Company
Price: Free with a New York Times subscription
OS reviewed: iOS
Other OSes: None (Web version for mobile devices available)
If you want to access most of The New York Times' content online, a subscription -- either for the online service or for the actual paper -- is required. The NYTimes Election 2012 app is no different.
If you don't subscribe, you get access only to the top six election-related news stories. But if you do (I get Sunday-only delivery and that was good enough to gain me entry) this is a dynamite app, a real must-have for political junkies -- and it's especially worth it during an election year in particular.
The biggest problem I had with the app was getting it to download correctly. To make the process most efficient, before you download the Election app, point your iPhone to the main site for The New York Times. Log in and make sure you've connected your online login info to your subscription ID.
Once that's completed, head on over to the iTunes store and download the app.
Once loaded, NYTimes Election 2012 is sweet indeed. The app features political opinions and news from both the Times and from around the Web, including sites on opposite sides of most debates such as Fox News and The Huffington Post, and Times arch-rivals such as CNN and The Washington Post. An "Election Guide" includes information about primaries and caucuses listed in the order they occurred; it also includes a calendar of upcoming primaries or caucuses, a delegate tracker and results for more polls than I ever knew existed.
Profiles of all current candidates -- including the little-mentioned Buddy Roemer -- are there, as well as a real wonk's treat: Nate Silver's projections of winners and losers before each primary/caucus, along with an in-depth explanation of how he arrives at them.
The politics-themed multimedia section is very well-done; there are video interviews with various Times correspondents and other observers talking about the GOP race in Florida, for instance. Slide shows include shots of the candidates on the campaign trail. The videos are slick, although slide shows don't have captions, which would be a nice add.
Overall, I like this app a lot and plan on keeping it on my iPhone throughout the rest of this election year. Not only is the Times kicking butt in terms of its political coverage, but the app packages it all up in a very handy way.
Times Publishing Company
OS reviewed: Android
Other OSes: iOS, BlackBerry
You're sitting around the dinner table and your obnoxious brother-in-law states as a fact something that his favorite politician said, and which you suspect is a total fabrication. How do you counter him? Simple -- pull out your smartphone and check PolitiFact.
PolitiFact is an app from the Tampa Bay Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning site PolitiFact.com. Its sole purpose is to check specific statements from politicians, pundits and other political speakers to find out how much of what they say is actually based in fact. As you might suspect, the results are both interesting and dismaying.
Each statement is rated on PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter as being True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False or False; particularly egregious falsehoods get a special rating of Pants on Fire. In its opening screen, the app lists recent statements by various politicians along with a photo of the person and a rating icon; click on the statement and you are taken to a menu that lets you read the full explanation of why that rating was given. You can also choose to see more statements by (and more information about) that person.
If you're in a contrary mood, you can list statements by their ratings (for example, all those that have been rated Pants on Fire, which is a lot of fun). You can also look at the Truth-O-Meter, which shows the general rating of your favorite (or least favorite) politicians on a continuum from green (True) to black (Pants on Fire). You can click into each to see the person's percentage of statements that come under each rating, and click into those for lists of statements. And you can search for statements on various subjects as well.
The PolitiFact app has a few additional features as well. There's the Promises screen that checks how many of President Obama's campaign promises have been carried out as opposed to those of the GOP leadership in Congress. There are also a few extra fact checks; for example, of some of the ads that ran during the Florida primaries. And the Flip-O-Meter lets you know who has flip-flopped on various issues.
PolitiFact isn't a perfect app; for example, sometimes it takes a few too many clicks to get back to the home screen, and it doesn't have all the information that's available on the Web site (such as the ability to check statements made during specific state primaries). And it's not free; the app costs $1.99.
Nevertheless, this is a great fact-checking resource that should come in very handy as the primary season winds its way into the general election. PolitiFact is an app that I'm definitely keeping on my smartphone.
OS reviewed: iOS
Other OSes: None
USA Election 2012 doesn't quite live up to its claim of giving you "all the information you'll need to make an informed decision about who to vote for in the 2012 Presidential Election," but that doesn't mean it's not interesting and fun to use.
The app gathers an array of data to keep you up to date on the election, including the latest results from polls and primaries, fundraising totals and sources, and election news from a handful of media outlets on both the left and right, including ABC News, Fox News and MSNBC.
Because USA Election 2012 pulls in information from a variety of sources, some sections are more current than others. For example, fundraising stats and summaries come from the New York Times, which releases quarterly updates -- so the figures shown through late January were dated Sept. 30. (The numbers have since been updated with the campaigns' official totals from Dec. 31.)
The news feeds are, of course, updated every few minutes, and the poll info, which is obtained from various polling agencies, is updated daily. On election nights (including primaries), USA Election 2012 is updated approximately every 15 minutes, according to the developer, Kurt Sparks.
There's also a section for the latest economic indicators such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and weekly jobless claims, and you can compare those stats with the same data from previous dates of your choosing -- last month, last year, 20 years ago. It's interesting information, but I don't quite follow how it's supposed to help me choose which candidate to vote for.
Finally, there's an interactive electoral map of the 50 states, colored red or blue by default based on whether they swung Republican or Democratic in the 2008 election. You can change the affiliation of any state (including making it Independent) to see how its electoral votes might affect the outcome of this year's election. Sparks promises more map options before the November elections, and says he's "toying with the idea of allowing the user to share their election night scenarios via social media or email."
Push notifications to alert users to new election info, more detailed campaign finance information, more news sources and full iPad support will also be added this year, says Sparks.
I did encounter one or two small annoyances, such as the app repeatedly asking for permission to access Twitter accounts when I clicked on news stories. (I meant it when I said no the first time -- please don't keep asking me!) But overall the app worked smoothly and mostly glitch-free.
While not quite as complete as it claims to be (summaries of where the candidates stand on key issues would be nice), USA Election 2012 does gather a wealth of election-related info. If you're undecided or simply want to follow the election in one convenient place, it's 99 cents well spent.
OS reviewed: Android
Other OSes: None
Some people bemoan the polarization of political discourse these days. Others seem to revel in it, enjoying the adrenaline rush that comes with virtually shouting your opinions at those who disagree with you. If you're in the latter camp -- or if you harbor an optimistic idea that you can help make the level of discourse more intelligent and intelligible -- then you may want to try out VoterMap.
VoterMap is part of a group of apps built on a location-based application called YodaMap, which shares geotagged, anonymous posts via Google Maps. The idea is simple: You start a conversation on a topic (in this case, the upcoming elections) by typing text into an entry form; you can also record or attach a video or photo, or make an audio recording.
Your entry is geotagged to your location. Each entry is marked on a Google map by a blue flag. Click on a flag, and you can see (via a text bubble) how many other users have approved or disapproved the entry, how many comments have been added and how long ago the original entry appeared. There is also a button that is apparently meant to translate comments from one language to another, but it wasn't working when I tested the app.
Click again, and you can read the entire entry and the thread of comments it has generated. You can then register your own approval or disapproval, add a comment, or share the entry. You can also approve or disapprove specific comments.
It's a nice idea -- another way to encourage conversation on a topic -- and I like the idea that I can see what people are saying in other parts of the country (or the world). But for the most part, the conversation tends to remain on the "Sez you!" level, although I did find one or two reasonable threads. And, as with many social networking venues, there are a few users who seem to enjoy being a disruptive influence by inserting their rather vehement opinions into as many conversations as they can.
I'm also a little leery of how private these conversations really are. You are identified only by your general location (unless you choose to be more exact), but it is simple to zoom in on any entry to street level; considering how volatile some of these conversations get, I'd prefer that the maps didn't go down to quite that level of detail.
That said, if you're the type of person who likes to get into the thick of political discussion, VoterMap may be your cup of tea.