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How the Obama Campaign Makes "Two Minute Volunteers"

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The Obama presidential campaign made waves last week when it announced Obama '08: The Official iPhone Application. This free application hit the iTunes App Store Top 10, and has generated nearly 700 reviews so far. Whether you're an Obama supporter or not, it's an interesting move: the campaign is using technology to decentralize the campaign effort, effectively turning thousands of individuals across the nation into micro-call centers. This effort is likely to be mirrored by future campaigns, and I wouldn't be surprised if the McCain campaign was working on something similar right now.

So how does it work? Well, the Obama '08 application's most innovative function -- labeled "Call Friends" -- looks inside your address book and organizes your contacts by battleground state, with buttons allowing you to call those contacts. This is really clever, but in retrospect pretty obvious -- you've got a device that makes phone calls, and you've got a list of people's phone numbers and addresses inside the device: put these things together and you've got a call center on the go. The application also ranks the battleground states (sorting the most contentious at the top of the list), and allows you to track statistics about who you've called and how they intend to vote. The idea is to encourage individuals to perform a function usually left to old school call centers, in which staffers and volunteers call down the voter rolls, trying to get out the vote for their candidate. Presumably the Obama campaign's hope is that legions of iPhone owners will call their friends in battleground states and convince them to vote Democratic. Project director Raven Zachary dubs these callers "Two Minute Volunteers," for the tiny slices of time required to call a friend and talk politics. (Having said that, I suspect it'll take more like ten minutes to really have a discussion. Or you might be a "One Minute Volunteer" and just leave a voicemail.)

But what about privacy?

Well, the designers of the Obama '08 application are very careful to disclose that the application doesn't "phone home" with any personal or private information -- its privacy policy is displayed inside the application, in a detailed screen that appears before you begin calling anyone (you have to opt in, in other words). The application does record anonymized statistics about the number of calls made through the application, and reports those statistics back to home base. There's no personally identifying information about who was called or who made the calls, but the campaign is able to measure the aggregate usage of the application and per-user (anonymous) statistics. Five days after launch, the application reports a nationwide total of 19,072 calls made by 4,211 people. The most active user called 100 people.

Obama iPhone app - IssuesBeyond the "Call Friends" feature, the application contains a complete list of issues that effectively constitutes the Obama/Biden platform. Labeled "Issues," the list is divided into a long series of categories including Education, Economy/Taxes, Faith, Healthcare, Iraq, and (my favorite) Women. The issues screens include direct quotes from Obama himself, along with detailed information from the campaign about the platform on that particular subject. The detail is impressive: there are pages of content for each issue -- enough to get a good idea of the specifics of the candidate's plans. Each issue can be emailed to a friend (the iPhone does email, remember) or further explored on the web. I think this is a great idea: it lends substance to the debate, and allows you to check up on what exactly the candidate thinks about a specific issue. It's the ultimate cocktail party conversation resource (as long as your cocktail parties are Obama-themed).

Other features include news, audio and video, local events, volunteer information, and of course a "Donate" button. But I think the "Call Friends" and "Issues" sections will have the biggest impact on the political process, and many of the reviews on the iTunes App Store have focused on these functions. You can learn more about the application from the Obama campaign's website, or read various developer blogs about the project.

Full disclosure: I'm friends with a few of the developers who volunteered their time to build this application. I haven't contributed to it and (as you can hopefully tell above) I'm not taking sides in the political debate -- but I am interested in technology and how it affects our daily lives, hence this blog post. In any case, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Have you used the app? Do you love it, hate it, think it's weird? Are you a McCain supporter who wants to see something similar? Let us know.

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Why America Has So Many Empty Parking Spaces
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When you’re driving around looking for a spot to park on tight downtown streets, you’re probably not cursing city planners for mandating too much parking space. (You’re probably thinking the opposite.) But while some areas, depending on the time of day, are inundated with more cars than spaces, for the most part Americans lead lives of parking privilege, surrounded by empty spaces they don’t need to use. By one estimate, there are eight parking spots for every car in the U.S. (Others say it's more like three, which is still a lot considering that number doesn't take into account home parking.)

Why does the U.S. have so much extra parking? A new video explainer from Vox (spotted by Arch Daily) has the answer. It’s because laws mandate it.

In the video, Will Chilton and Paul Mackie of the transportation research initiative Mobility Lab explain the rise of the parking meter, which was invented in the 1930s, and the regulations that soon followed, called mandatory parking minimums. These city laws require that those building an apartment complex or shopping center or store have to provide a minimum number of spaces in off-street parking for customers to use. The cost of providing this service is carried by building developers—giving the city a free way to get new parking without having to manage their street parking situation closely. Go to any suburb in America, and the parking lots you leave your car in are probably the result of these parking minimum rules.

The ease of parking in America isn’t a good thing—though it may feel like it when you slide into an open spot right in front of the grocery store. Experts have been calling for an end to zoning laws like these for years, arguing that excess parking encourages unnecessary driving (why take the bus or carpool if it’s easy to drive yourself and park for free?) while simultaneously making it harder to walk around a city, since parking takes up a ton of land that’s difficult to traverse on foot, interrupting the urban fabric.

These parking minimum regulations take very specific forms by building type, including number of spaces required per hole at a golf course, per gallons of water in a public pool, and per beds in a nursing home. Before you cheer for free, plentiful parking, let the experts at Vox explain just why this is a problem for cities:

[h/t Arch Daily]

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A Microsoft Font Might Have Revealed Political Corruption in Pakistan
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Note to wrongdoers: Check your fonts. Right now in Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family are in legal hot water over what might be falsified government disclosures, according to Slate. The proof? The typeface used in the documents, as the investigative report submitted to Pakistan's Supreme Court notes.

Calibri, the sans-serif typeface that serves as the default for Microsoft applications, was designed in the early 2000s. But it didn't become widely available to the public until Microsoft Vista and its accompanying Office update were released in 2007.

This is where things have gotten tricky for the prime minister. His daughter may have fabricated documents that would show that she and her family had made the proper official disclosures on their finances. The documents, which were supposedly signed in 2006, were written with Calibri—a year before it was released to the public.

Defense lawyers argue, of course, that Maryam Nawaz Sharif could have just had access to Calibri before Windows Vista came out, since it was designed before 2007. The typeface's designer, Lucas de Groot, has said that the very first release he was aware of came out in 2006 as part of beta testing for the Vista operating system. But based on the sheer size of the files involved in such a beta product, it would have required "serious effort to get," a representative for LucasFonts told the Pakistani news outlet Dawn. And that would have been a super early test version, since the first public beta didn't come out until June 2006, four months after the documents were supposedly signed. Unless she was a huge computer nerd, Maryam probably didn't have access to Calibri back in early 2006, indicating the documents were faked. 

Whether you're turning in a term paper or falsifying legal documents, you're always better off going with Times New Roman.

[h/t Slate]

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