The Washington Post’s WP Politics app for the iPad is an excellent resource for anyone interested in United States politics. I spent a few days with this free app and found it to be an excellent tool for tracking and understanding the 2012 election season. While not without its flaws, this app does two critical things exceedingly well. First, it aggregates media and information from a broad range of sources into one tool. Whether you’re looking for the latest news about a particular candidate or economic data from years ago, it’s all here. Second, it organizes and contextualizes the information in a way that helps the casual user to understand it. It classifies news articles by genre, organizes Twitter feeds by source, and breaks candidates down by their stances on the issues. If you’re looking for an app to help you follow the upcoming election, or politics in general, look no further.
Whether you’re a seasoned pundit or just someone interested in politics, the WP Politics app is a valuable resource. The app has a steeper learning curve than, say, Angry Birds, so this review not only critiques the app but also offers some guidance on how to use it. The app is divided into six sections and opens by default to the News and Analysis section.
News & Analysis:
The News & Analysis section is the default section and provides you with quick and easy access to the latest political news. The articles are captioned with headings such as “news,” “opinion,” and “fact checker” so that you don’t have to guess about the genre of a given article. This is nice when skimming around.
Tap any article to read it. The interface lets you adjust text size for easy reading and share articles via email or Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.
Overall the News & Analysis section does the job, but it’s no Flipboard. It would be nice to see refinements to the user interface and stability within this section needs to be improved. I experienced a number of crashes while viewing news articles and it appears as if other users have experienced the same. The good news is that I noted far fewer crashes when using other sections of the app. Hopefully the upcoming version of this app will fix these issues.
The Forum section is where the app ties itself into social media. It does this solely through Twitter, which works quite well, although it would be nice to have the ability to tie into other social media networks.
The Forum section organizes incoming Twitter content into six discrete subsections: News Outlets, Campaigns, Partisans, Office Holders, Fact Checkers, and Jesters. Across the top of each section is a banner comprised of trending tweets specific to that subsection (which may be collapsed). The bottom area of each subsection contains widgets that filter tweets into basic categories. For example, widgets for the News Outlets subsection include CNN, Fox, and Washington Post, etc. while widgets for the Office Holders subsection include Current Democrats and Current Republicans.
You can also customize what the individual widgets display by Twitter user. Let’s say you want to limit the Candidates widget under the Campaigns subsection of the Forum to display only Joe Biden’s tweets. Simply tap the filter button at the top of the Candidates widget to alter these display settings.
Unfortunately you cannot add Twitter users that are not already listed in the app, but you can submit a request for additions. This was a deliberate choice by the app’s designers in order to impose some structure and to remain in compliance with Twitter’s latest app development guidelines. But I can see circumstances where it would be nice to be able to add Twitter users of your choosing into the widgets (i.e. a politically-savvy friend or a local news station pundit).
Screen refreshing needs improvement. The filters do not appear to update in real-time and, therefore, I found myself continually needing to tap the refresh button during times of intense activity. Adding swipe to refresh or at least relocating the refresh button (i.e. swap with the settings button) would be nice enhancements for future versions.
I found that the best time to use the Forum section is during times of intense Twitter activity such as debates or other political events. I watched the October 3, 2012 presidential debate with my iPad running the Forum section as a second screen. I switched between a standard Twitter feed running on my iPad’s Twitter app and the WP Politics app’s forum section. The WP Politics app was the clear winner in this case because of how it organized the storm of tweets that erupted during the debate.
The standard Twitter feed updated so quickly with new tweets, off-topic tweets, retweets, etc. that it was difficult to pull anything meaningful out of it. The app’s Forum section, on the other hand, put everything in its place; fact checks from reputable fact checking organizations fit into one subsection; campaign spokespersons’ tweets updated in another subsection. This made it very easy to get what I wanted out of the Twitter chatter and still pay attention to the debate.
I think the Forum section is one of the areas where this app really shines because of how it provides the user with a way to manage what would otherwise be an overwhelming flow of information. I did notice some lag in tweet update times (up to 10 minutes) when viewed in the WP Politics app vs. Twitter, but the observed delays were inconsistent (i.e. some Twitter users lagged while others did not). Hopefully future versions of this app will continue to build on the features already present in the Forum section.
The Candidates section provides the user with a helpful overview of the candidates’ stances on various issues such as the economy, environment, social security, taxes, etc. Select an issue and the app will give you summary of the candidates’ positions. Just tap the candidate’s picture for more detailed information. The app also points out instances where a given candidate’s stance on an issue has changed over time.
The next version of the WP Politics app (due to be released any day now) will boast new content within the Candidates section in the form of a “Founding Fathers” subsection. The Washington Post enlisted the well-known American historian Jack Rakove to write the content for this new subsection, which will offer detailed historical analysis regarding the viewpoints held by past political leaders. I think it’s great that the developers are reaching out to an American history expert to provide additional educational content for this app.
Maps & Data:
The Maps & Data section of the WP Politics app puts decades of economic and poll data at the user’s fingertips. It is broken down into several core subsections: Polling & Projections, National Polls & Data, TV Ads, and Historical Elections, etc. Each of the subsections contains interactive maps and data from a wealth of sources and organizations (e.g. Pew Research, Gallup, NPR, Quinnipiac University, etc.).
As with the other sections, the Maps & Data section includes features that make it easier for the casual user to make sense of the information. For example, when viewing the National Polls & Data subsection you will notice a series of icons across the top of the graphs, which mark significant dates. Tap on one of the icons and the app will display more detailed information about that date. This contextual information is incredibly helpful when trying to decipher the graphs.
Another welcomed feature is how this section provides links to the data it relies on. This app lends itself extremely well for use as an educational tool and, therefore, there may be occasions where a student or teacher may want to access more-detailed information about a survey. For example, let’s say you want to pull some basic information about one of the Gallup polls you’re seeing in the app. Just tap on a data point and expand the menu for information such as survey method, sample size, margin of error, etc. If you want even more information the popups usually contain a “More Info” link, which points to a website where you can find more information about the poll or study.
Another one of the Maps & Data section worth noting is the TV Ads subsection, which gives you a bird’s eye view of the political battles raging over TV airwaves. It lets you see what ads are being played, who’s playing them (i.e. campaigns vs. interest groups), and how frequently those ads are being played. You can even watch the ads if you’re into that sort of thing.
It’s easy to get lost in the Maps & Data section because there’s just so much to experiment with. I myself have only begun to scratch the surface. I would encourage anyone who downloads this app to devote a little bit of time to exploring this section.
Insider’s Corner and Campaign Files
These two sections are filled with Washington Post content that requires a monthly subscription to view. Avid Washington Post readers or those just looking to get a little bit more out of this App may want to give these sections a look.
The Insider’s Corner section gives the user access to various feeds of Washington Post content, which is organized by source (i.e. The Fix by Chris Cillizza, Wonkblog by Ezra Klein, The Take by Dan Balz, etc.). The Campaign Files section is a filtering tool, which organizes Washington Post content by candidates and issues. If you enjoy reading Washington Post content, then access to these sections might be worth the subscription fee ($2.99/mo), but that’s entirely up to you.
The WP Politics app is a great tool for anyone interested in learning more about United States politics and will likely come in handy for the average person trying to make sense of the upcoming election. It aggregates political content from numerous sources (i.e. news stories, opinions, poll and economic data, and social media) and organizes and contextualizes it in a way that fosters understanding. The option to pay for additional information allows those that want more to get it at a modest price while still allowing the casual user to access a wealth of information for free. The app’s user interface does need some minor improvement (i.e. swipe to refresh, support for portrait mode, removal of the ad banner on the bottom of the screen, consistent use of Retina graphics throughout etc.), but these updates will likely come with time. Given the price tag of the WP Politics app – it’s free – I think anyone interested in politics should grab this app and give it a try.