Obama’s New Media Strategies for Ghana

A couple weeks ago I had a discussion with President Obama’s New Media team, where we talked about what they might do to reach out to ordinary Ghanaians on his trip next week – which will culminate in his speech in Accra on July 11th. There is a lot of excitement in Africa around Obama, and this trip is going to set the continent humming.

Obama in Ghana - 2009

WhiteHouse.gov/Ghana isn’t live yet, but on July 11th, it will become available. They are going to stream the talk at whitehouse.gov/live.

It’s a fairly interesting initiative to undertake, with a slew of problems, as you try to engage with as many individuals in an open travel campaign as possible. At the same time, you know that any channel you open up will get absolutely flooded with incoming comments, questions and spam of every sort. In the end, the team decided that Radio, SMS, then Facebook would be the primary new media access points – and in that order.

Radio, SMS and Facebook

Radio is still the number one communications medium across Africa, and Ghana has a particularly vibrant and active one with a lot of local and national community interaction.

As everyone knows, mobile phone penetration has grown at an explosive rate in Africa, this means that SMS is a fairly democratic means for getting feedback from people of every demographic across the nation. (Funnily enough, not available to US-based residents – more below on that)

Lastly, there are no major homegrown web-based social networks in Ghana, and like many other countries across Africa Facebook has a decent amount of penetration. In Ghana, it’s at 100,000+, so it makes the most sense for the new media team to engage and interact without splitting their energy over too many services. Having Twitter on as a backup is natural, as there will be a great deal of chatter there as well.

The details (from the White House)

SMS. We’re launching an SMS platform to allow citizens to submit questions, comments and words of welcome (in English and in French) . Using a local SMS short code in Ghana (1731) , Nigeria (32969) , South Africa (31958) and Kenya (5683), as well as a long code across the rest of the world*, Africans and citizens worldwide will be encouraged to text their messages to the President. SMS participants will also be able to subscribe to speech highlights in English and French. Long numbers for mobile registration pan-Africa: 61418601934 and 45609910343.

This SMS platform is not available to US participants due to the Smith Mundt Act (The act also prohibits domestic distribution of information intended for foreign audiences).

Radio. A live audio stream of the President’s speech will be pushed to national and local radio stations during the speech. After the speech, a taped audio recording of the President’s answers to the SMS messages received will be made available to radio stations and websites. The President hopes to answer a variety of questions and comments by topic and region. The audio recording will also be made available for download on White House website and iTunes.

Video. The speech will be livestreamed at www.whitehouse.gov/live. The embed code for this video is available so you may also host the livestream on any Website.

Online chat. We will host a live web chat around the speech on Facebook (it will be at http://apps.facebook.com/whitehouselive). The White House will also create a Facebook “event” around the speech wherein participants from around the world can engage with one another. A Twitter hashtag (i.e. #obamaghana) will also be created and promoted to consolidate input and reaction around the event.

Obama talks about his upcoming trip

Part 1

Part 2

Apps for America: Snapvote

I came across the Sunlight Foundation’s “Apps for America” contest last week, and it reminded me of a side-project that I started that never got off the ground a couple years back. Add in today’s US Presidential inauguration and it was just too much for me not to share this idea. I’m now too busy with Ushahidi to do this, but I think it could be a good candidate for this competition, and I hope someone builds it.

History

Just over two years ago I was thinking about the upcoming US national elections and of building a web application that would be useful to the general public and which also had some business potential. I sat down and drew out an idea I thought had a lot of merit, and I actually sat down with two really smart people (Meagan Fisher and Jason Hawkins) and we ended up concepting most of the app. However, there was no code laid down, just a lot of background work trying to understand the feasibility, market and data.

It was called SnapVote: A tool for keeping citizens informed about elections in their area

SnapVote: Homepage Mockup

What is SnapVote?

We wanted SnapVote to be the easiest way for Americans to figure out whom to vote for in any political race. The name came from the idea that voters could get a snapshot of politicians, races and platforms before they voted.

We were going to provide a party-agnostic snapshot of who was running for office in each person’s area, voters would be informed in less time and with less hassle than ever before. Every politician who was running for public office would have a default profile on SnapVote, which could be upgraded for a small fee and that would allow the politician to have their own space on the web.

What’s the problem?

  • There’s a lot of noise around election time
  • Most of us are “lazy voters” who don’t really know who to vote for
  • We’re getting told what the issues are
  • Politicians have horrible websites that are hard to find

What’s the solution?

  • Quickly get a snapshot of who is running for office and what they stand for
  • Weigh in on the issues that YOU think are important – users decide
  • Every politician has their own website and can upgrade it for more features
  • Politicians get a snapshot (weekly/monthly) of the issues that are important to their constituents

What does it do?

  • A database of candidates for office at the federal, state and local levels
  • Aggregate user voting determines what issues are important for each constituency
  • Politicians can use Snapvote as their primary communication, fundraising and volunteer platform

The Objective

SnapVote was going to be the primary source of consumer information about politicians. From the President to the local dogcatcher, anyone who ran for public office would be accounted for. It would also serve as the primary website for information on any specific politician and created a website for each one.

SnapVote: Politician's Page

The Opportunity

SnapVote is in a position to be a first-mover in a fairly competitive-free space. 122 million people voted in the 2004 national elections, this is SnapVote’s constituency. Providing an easy-to-use tool that makes even the laziest of voters appear ready for Election Day is the goal. Secondarily, the profile for each politician will cost a fee to be upgraded. That number becomes quite large once you move past US President and Congress and start accounting for governors, mayors, city councils and congressmen for each state’s legislature. Initial income would come from politicians taking charge of their profiles on SnapVote. Other revenue opportunities would include aggregate data reports that could be sold to study groups, businesses and politicians.

SnapVote: Politicians (full)

More ideas

There was a lot more behind SnapVote, including aggregating people’s views on different political issues and politicians themselves. This data could be used to help individuals find politicians they shared the most in common with – especially for local elections. It also would come in handy for politicians, knowing what was being hot (or not) at the grassroots level.

As you can see from the mockup design work, there were also some thoughts around creating ways for politicians to raise donations and money easier, to plug into other social networks, events and getting people involved in their campaigns.

The biggest challenge is gathering the data on politicians running for office in local elections. As I called the different departments and organizations that handle this information around the country, I found that almost every state had a different set of rules for getting that data, and it was in a multitude of formats.