OTTAWA — That buzzing in your purse or pocket may soon be from a politician hoping to lighten it.
Smartphone applications that allow users to donate money and participate in political polls are shaping up to be the next tool in the media kit of politicians who are literate in social media.
Supporters of Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak say he has become the first Canadian politician to launch an iPhone application. The free download can transmit policy positions, videos, photos, news, information on coming events — and ask for your donation.
While Hudak organizers haven’t used the fundraising or survey capacities of the application yet, they say these tools were a factor in setting up the program.
“As we saw with Haiti and other charitable organizations, mobile fundraising and mobile giving is a really great tool that we definitely are looking to capitalize on and use,” said Brett Bell, the director of social media for the provincial Ontario PC party.
The creator of Hudak’s app says it’s among the top 100 social networking application downloads on iTunes in Canada.
That kind of program is likely to become an increasingly important tool for politicians targeting the younger demographic, according to one federal cabinet minister.
“There’s a whole generation of people there that need to be reached, and you’re only going to do it by adapting and recognizing the habits in which they consume information,” said Heritage Minister James Moore, who is considering signing up for a smartphone application.
“Any politician who misses that, you’re missing the mechanism by which people are collecting their information.”
Barack Obama was the first to use smartphones to raise significant amounts of money during his successful 2008 run for the U.S. presidency. Millions of dollars were raised at Obama rallies by asking those in the audience to hold up their cell phones and make donations of as little as $5.
The application used by Hudak was designed by Purple Forge, which has sold the technology to politicians in Britain and the United States. The company said they’ve received interest from other Canadian politicians, but they didn’t confirm any details of other programs in the works.
“1/8For3/8 people who are engaged digitally, this is going to be a logical next step,” said Mark Blevis, a consultant with the public affairs firm Fleishman-Hillard who has studied use of social media by Canadian politicians.
Bell said launching the Tim Hudak application is part of the party’s goal to capitalize on social media tools leading up to the next election campaign.
“Mobile is really the way that people are getting a lot of their information and spending their time online.
“So we thought it was very important for us to actually have a presence there and for people to be able to get to know Tim and get to know the party and what we stand for in that medium.”
The use of new media was in the political spotlight during the past week after Prime Minister Stephen Harper streamed his response to the throne speech on YouTube and allowed Canadians to post questions.
Labour minister Lisa Raitt drew attention to her live tweeting of question period, which included comments on the colour of clothing worn by fellow MPs. Conservative MP Royal Galipeau scrambled aboard the fashion commentary bandwagon during Friday’s session of the House by issuing updates on the colour of MPs’ ties.
Blevis said politicians will have to capitalize on tools like the smart phone application to reach the younger demographic.
“In order to reach them and get them engaged in politics, that’s going to have to shift into the digital space more and more,” he said.
Moore, Raitt and Galipeau are part of a small percentage of Canadian MPs who are active on social media sites like Twitter. About 20 per cent of MPs have active Twitter accounts, while another 17 per cent have accounts they don’t use, according to Blevis.
Moore, New Democrat MP Libby Davies and Liberal MP Denis Coderre are three of the most active politicians on the social networking site, according to the political tweet tracking site politwitter.ca.
Carleton University communications professor Mary Francoli is skeptical of whether new media is being used effectively by politicians. She said that while more MPs are using sites like Twitter and Facebook, the majority are still using them as a way to broadcast information rather than a forum for interaction with Canadians.
“The social networking tools are supposed to be a tool to facilitate discourse and discussion,” she said. “But I think what’s happening is there’s a little bit of unsureness on the part of parliamentarians and their offices about how this can be used for public discussion.”
Francoli said smartphone applications could be more conducive to interaction.
“The iPhone example is very interesting because it kind of shows a politician engaging in the technology rather than just trying to use it as a broadcast means.”
Blevis said other politicians considering similar applications will likely be waiting to see how the Hudak one goes over.
“Is it just a gimmick to get attention? Or is he actually going to be using this to push out relevant content, and engage and respond to people too?”
New media tools like the iPhone app are “only as good as the person who uses them and the message being communicated over them.”