I love hearing about new gadgets and technology, so when Microsoft introduced its new tablets, with a detachable keyboard and the new Microsoft Windows 8 operating system, I was pretty excited about the new opportunities the tech would create.
From the technical side of things, the tablet has a step up on Apple's iPad with the detachable keyboard -- making it not just a tablet, but a small computer. Apple still seems to have the advantage of an easier operating system, though: While Apple's OSX (in whatever jungle cat variety you happen to own) is seen as pretty idiot-proof, Windows 8 takes some getting used to.
But rather than focus on this particular tablet, I think it's interesting to think about the potential for this tablet (and those like it) to engage voters and canvass more effectively before elections.
From the voter side of things, tablets provide a less expensive alternative to computers. I've talked about this in a past blog post, but for voters who can't afford to pay both a monthly Internet bill and also pay for a pricey laptop or PC, tablets mean access to information. This Microsoft laptop in particular could serve poorer families as a workable laptop, and would also work well for older Internet users who want to be able to send email and keep up with news, but don't necessarily want to shell out for a computer.
From the organizing perspective, these tablets have untapped potential for canvassing -- something near and dear to my heart. The technology puts more information at a canvasser's fingertips in less space. It could slowly phase out the use of paper voter rolls in door knocking and phone banking, and make updating information much easier, much faster, and much more environmentally friendly.
The problem I found canvassing with paper was having outdated information. I and my friends were pounding the pavement in Southend-On-Sea, Essex, UK, trying to get undecided voters to vote for the Labour party. All of our volunteers had clipboards with at least half of a paper ream's worth of voter rolls -- many of which were out of date. We ran into a lot of homes where people had moved, changed names, changed party affiliation, or passed away. But those voter rolls were all we had to work with, save for a pen and a wooden spoon (a pro-tip for anyone leafleting houses with angry dogs and a mail slot in the door).
With a tablet, canvassers would be able to update information as soon as they got it -- which could potentially solve the information gap between paper and reality. If there was Wi-fi in the area (or they paid for a hotspot), canvassers would be able to update voter rolls instantly, rather than having some poor intern do the data entry later.
And with the tablet, they would be able to access campaign materials instantly, and have the ability to email the materials to voters and friends rather than spending a ton of money on direct mail. They would also be able to get voters to act instantly -- if there's a petition to be signed or a donation to be made through the web, they would be able to do this instantly as they stand on the doorstep. And with groups like NGP VAN creating applications to connect voter rolls with Facebook and geographic location, the opportunities for social networking and canvassing are endless -- something that simply can't be done with paper.
It may seem like an odd connection between tablets and political canvassing. But to truly target voters where they live, we have to find their home in every sense -- both their physical residence and their online presence. If progressives can merge the two and build a comprehensive canvassing strategy, this new technology can only help us win the future.