At the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference, I find myself thinking a lot about social software, social networks, political uses of technology, and mobility, which takes it all on the road.
At the moment I'm watching Lili Cheng of Microsoft present on the way people really use social software. Some of us were speaking earlier about how communities take a life of their own; you can't always be sure how they'll use a platform you've built, though through research you can get a sense of the possibilities.
Microsoft's building a social network platform called Wallop, which includes visual representations of networks and various ways to interact and show/view images, which can be annotated with metadata. There are various ways for people to serendipitously interact with each other using simple versions of blog/wiki/rss kinds of technology. The lightweight blogging capability is distinct from a more conversational messaging interface. Also supports MP3 streaming and playlists.
I've been wondering about the political significance of this kind of software. Software developed to support the Howard Dean campaign followed these social software models, but field organizers noted that blogging and social network development wasn't useful for them. They needed database support for GOTV ("get out the vote") activities. We've been discussing how, for all the talk about the Dean campaign's use of technology, we're still not far along in developing powerful, practical solutions for political organizers and activists, and we still haven't established the relationship between social software and political software.
One problem is that we have so many smart people with so many great ideas... how do we settle on specific, interoperable political solutions? We've heard that the Dean campaign and, more recently, the Kerry campaign have found it hard to evaluate all the ideas they're hearing and decide which ones to pursue. A successful candidate attracts significant information overload.
Many issues here, including the digital divide question: are we focusing on tools that are available only to an elite?
The contacts database is definitely a demand for any kind of grassroots organizing. One promising project is put together by a place called Organizer's Collaborative (http://organizenow.net/odb/odb.php) - it's a windows-only app now, with plans to go cross-platform soon.
In terms of the small-to-medium scale non-profit community here in the United States, there is, in fact, a lot of attention being paid to developing and deploying truly useful technology, buiding capacity, and creating a networked, supportive community of activist technologists.
Just a few of these efforts include: The NonProfit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN) (http://www.nten.org/) and the "501 Tech Clubs" NTEN sponsors, the Circuit Riders mailing lists, and The Taproot Foundation.
I'm not sure what you mean when you say "...specific, interoperable, political solutions." (Emphasis mine.) Can you expand upon how software, or technology solutions, are "political"? Is a political interaction inherently different from a social interaction?
As I mentioned to Jon at etech, http://indyvoter.org is developing some of these tools including resource matching and plans to put all voter files online so it can be hooked up with mapping software and used to generate lists for phone bankink and precinct walking.
their spec is at