October 7, 2004 1:46 PM PDT

New software a true political compass

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A software program for cell phones is giving new meaning to the question, "Where do you stand politically?"

A free program titled Red or Blue measures the political leanings of your immediate surroundings based on campaign contributions sorted geographically.

The Java-based application, from software developer Jason Uechi, produces the image of a Geiger counter-like meter on a device screen, with a blue donkey representing Democrats on the left side, and a red elephant representing Republicans on the right. The meter's indicator bar tilts toward one side or the other, depending on the amount of campaign cash given to the different parties by people in the vicinity. The application also will show you the total amount of contributions for Republicans or Democrats in your area.

Theoretically, someone could use the application to avoid people of opposing political stripes. But that's not what Uechi--who works by day as the chief technology officer of a New York City ad agency--had in mind. "I certainly never envisioned this as a tool to further drive the red and blue people apart, but more as a way to keep a discussion going--why is the electorate so energized and so polarized?" he said in an e-mail.

Red or Blue, which can be downloaded at Uechi's Web site, is one of a number of efforts to merge politics with technology. Politically active bloggers have played a significant role this campaign season in shaping debates about a number of matters, including the authenticity of memos produced by CBS that raised questions about President Bush's National Guard service. In addition, electronic mailing lists, including one from the left-leaning group MoveOn.org, keep people informed about political news.

Uechi's software also serves as an example of the way mobile devices are starting to allow for location-based services. Such services can raise privacy questions. For example, phones with global positioning system technology and special software are being used to keep tabs on workers.

Red or Blue users don't need to worry that their movements are being watched, Uechi said. "I purposely didn't build any tracking mechanisms into it to track users or anything like that," he said. "I figured people might be reluctant if they thought there were 'big brother' issues with it."

The application works with a number of mobile devices, including a Nextel phone equipped with Java and GPS. Those with BlackBerry devices with Internet access or Java-enabled cell phones with Internet access also can employ Red or Blue.

Once you activate the software on a phone, the phone either connects to the GPS on the device and gets your latitude and longitude, or asks you to input your U.S. address. The phone then connects to the Internet to send that information to server computers and those, in turn, spit back the data about political contributions.

An algorithm calculates the "optimal" radius around your location to assess, then generates an index of red or blue that is weighted by proximity. So if you're standing in a Republican town but at the doorstep of a big Democratic contributor, the index will lean toward blue, according to Uechi.

The application also has a "compass" feature that lets you determine the political inclinations of the direction in which you're heading. "It's like a divining rod for political preference," Uechi says on his Web site. If you don't have a GPS phone, you may need a real compass to figure out which direction is North, according to the site.

Uechi estimates that the software has been downloaded more than a thousand times. The GPS version has been available at his site since May, but versions for the BlackBerry and for non-GPS phones went up in the past week.

He says the decision not to include information for third-party candidate Ralph Nader isn't meant to be a political statement in support of two-party rule, but rather merely a design decision. And although he's a Democrat, Uechi denies any bias in his application. "There's nothing in the code that makes it better for blue," he said.

 

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