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A contested convention in the age of the smartphone

Photo Illustration: Yahoo News, photos: AP.

This July, thousands of delegates, party officials, campaign staff and journalists will descend on the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. It is possible, or even likely, that no candidate will win the presidential nomination on the first or second ballots — something that hasn’t happened since 1952, back when the closest thing to a computer was a giant calculator, telephones required land lines and the founder of Twitter had yet to be conceived. Though candidates were able to use broadcast television as a tool to influence results, any backdoor power brokering at the convention went relatively undocumented.

Technologically, the 2016 landscape is much different. In the era of the iPhone, the near 20,000-person crowd that will fill the Quicken Loans arena will serve as both its own private media network and — depending on the capabilities of the venue — a bandwidth-swamping black hole. 2,472 people in that crowd will be the delegates who will vote to nominate the president. And, according to a recent report from Politico, each candidate’s team has already begun developing tech tools for tracking the faces, names and home states of each of them. All of this political negotiating will take place as smartphone-toting supporters of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich document the scene via Snapchat and Vine, producing their own real-time feeds full of rumors and disinformation.

But the precise technology that will be at play on the convention floor is still anyone’s guess. A Trump convention strategist told Politico that his team will use some sort of “custom-built hardware” with a “closed loop” system that would allow his staff to communicate efficiently without having to rely on potentially unreliable Wi-Fi (it sounds suspiciously like a walkie-talkie). Cruz’s team, on the other hand, plans to build an iPhone app that works offline and contains strategic data about each delegate and whether they might be swayed. Kasich has yet to divulge a strategy. Ideally, each candidate’s team will need a tool that can (1) effectively record and deliver data and messages without relying on what will likely be an overwhelmed Wi-Fi network, and (2) possibly identify or track delegates on the floor.

Though some “House of Cards” buffs might think a campaign tracks delegates via a big whiteboard in a hotel room, state-specific rules make record keeping much more complicated. Depending on whether you’re a delegate from Iowa or a delegate from Hawaii, you may be bound to vote for a given candidate for one or more rounds of voting. Any data-based tracking app would need to account for this web of restrictions, and send push alerts when a delegate is free to change his vote, so the managers know the best time to court him.

When it comes to battling the congested cellular network that candidates are sure to encounter during the convention, one of the most reliable options for teams to communicate may be a mesh network app like FireChat. These wireless networks can function entirely without Internet, as long as a minimum number of people in a concentrated location use them. FireChat uses Bluetooth and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connections to link up nearby phones that also have the app installed. If enough people have the app, they form a distributed network and can pass messages along in one large public stream.

According to Christophe Daligault, a marketing officer at FireChat, tools like these have become popular during political events when Wi-Fi networks are overwhelmed — or when authorities shut down Internet services in order to control information. The app first took off during the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in August 2014, when half a million people used it during the span of a week. Since then, it’s been used during elections in the Congo and Venezuela, and for less formal instances on cruise ships or at Burning Man. Daligault said his team briefly met with then-Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul last year to discuss his campaign’s possible use of the app.

FireChat currently works as a type of location-based Twitter feed, where everyone in one particular location can see the messages that people are typing into the app. But within the next month, it will allow users to create their own private networks so they can invite only their acquaintances.

“The beauty of it is, it goes wherever you go,” Daligault told Yahoo News. “It’s your own social network that doesn’t need a network.”

Depending on the guidelines that the Republican National Convention rules committee sets before the event, candidates may also attempt to use tracking techniques that have traditionally been used at trade shows. Organizers can track attendees by placing radio frequency identification (RFID) chips inside their badges, each of which contains information about an individual. According to Brian Ludwig, a senior vice president of sales at the event technology company Cvent, it’s common practice to code certain categories into each attendee’s chip, such as his state or industry. This same technology could be incredibly helpful to tipping off candidates’ teams about where delegates are traveling on the convention floor.

“I want to know who’s going in on the trade show floor, how long they’re standing in front of certain booths, and the interested parties,” he told Yahoo News. “You could have someone scanning folks at the door. But that’s obtrusive, and you have to have staff. Putting mats down or RFID panels on doorways can allow less obvious tracking of folks.”

If convention organizers are unwilling to offer that kind of information to campaign staff, another option could be to use something called beacon technology. Here’s how it works: Candidates could ask delegates to download and activate an app made specifically for the convention. Strategically placed small trackers — $20 contraptions shaped like hockey pucks — at key locations in the arena would register a delegate’s presence, as long as his or her Bluetooth is on, and automatically send a push notification to that delegate’s phone.

“At the end of the day, when someone goes to that convention their inbox is a mess,” Ludwig said. “They’re going to have 500 emails by the time they leave after a couple days. Literally the best conduit to someone’s eyeballs is not by sending them an email or text, but sending them a push notification that pops no matter what, even if the app is closed down.”

According to Ludwig, Cvent is in talks with the RNC to provide preregistration, online check-in, badges and a mobile app for an event made up of about 1,300 “major VIP donor types” at the convention. Whether Trump, Cruz or Kasich will eventually adopt any of the company’s techniques, however, is yet to be seen.

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