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Think Tank App-a-palooza Week!

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, October 15 2010

You might not have been aware of it, but the market for Washington think tank apps expanded dramatically this week. The libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative Heritage Foundation joined their brethren at the middle-of-the-road Brookings Institute in introducing walking-around hubs for their reports, fact-sheets, and other content. Think tanks' bread and butter is getting their ideas injected into the public conversation, and mobile is one way to make their wisdom and guidance more accessible. Will it work? Is it worth it? Dunno. But let's have a quick look at the political smartypantness now available on your iPhone:

Cato Institute

What they say: "The latest research and commentary from the Cato Institute, a think tank dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace."

The good: This is where you go if you want to catch up on the libertarian outfit's often engaging group blog, Cato @ Liberty. But a particularly nice touch is the daily podcast that delivers you a ten-minute-or-so dose of Cato goodness without having to leave the app's streamlined interface.

The not so good: Cato's issue-based studies on topics like taxation and military spending are arranged by date. Only the farthest-gone Cato junkie would want to consume reports chronologically. Far better for most normal people would be to have access to the info by subject matter.

Get the Cato app here.

Heritage Foundation

What they say: "The latest in conservative research and news in the palm of your hand."

The good: The rightward think tank, a firm believer in spreading their work far and wide, offers up in its app op-eds by staff and associates that equip you with a quick Heritagean take on the issues of the day. The Heritage app's video section is, in addition, particularly easy to navigate.

The not so good: The bullet-pointed primers in the app's Fact Sheet section might come in handy for, say, a Hill staffer assigned to quickly get up to speed on an issue. But, like with Cato's app, it's organized chronologically. How useful is that?

Get the Heritage app here.

Brookings Institution

What they say: "Stay up-to-date with our high-quality, independent research; learn about Brookings events; and search our directory of experts—all from your mobile device."

The good: Brookings pre-dated the entry of its fellow think tankers into the iTunes store by about three weeks, but it still has a number of better features. For one, their content is organized by topic matter, with Brookings' particular policy priorities -- Energy and Climate, Growth Through Innovation, Managing Global Change and Opportunity and Well-Being -- getting top billing. For another, Brookings' stable of policy issue experts is represented well here, with not only quickie bios on each of them, but contact information as well, handy for putting together everything from a congressional hearing to a cable show panel.

The not so good: Like With the Cato and Heritage apps, the Brookings' app has no way to search for content.

Get the Brookings app here.

But question remains, does anyone actually use this stuff? Think tanks are in the business of constantly justifying their existence, so it's probably worthwhile from that perspective as a way of demonstrating to funders that they're keeping in the game. Plus, mobile's hot. But is anyone seeking out these apps as they seek out research, news, and points of view? It's something to keep an eye on, and if you have thoughts about their utility, be sure to leave them in the comments.