Microsoft tool for Martians now available for politicians
Microsoft MCTS Training has released a new social tool for political campaigns dubbed Town Hall. TownHall is currently being used by NASA for its Be A Martian site, a community for those (presumably human) folks who want to be Martian citizens.

My favorite MartianSomething about this project tickles my funny bone. Politicians are often living on their own planet. TownHall runs on Microsoft’s cloud platform, Azure. The TownHall code was used with a site for people who dream about living on another planet (in this case Mars, never mind how inhospitable Mars is to the human lifeform). Ergo, TownHall is the perfect tool for politicians wanting to build social sites and control the message. All of it was inspired, says Microsoft, by how masterfully the Obama campaign used the Internet in 2008.

However social media moves at the technology equivalent of the speed of light (am I taking the space analogy too far?). 2008 was in social media terms, like, a century ago. While every politician needs a Web site these days, and one that supports community interaction is better than a static one, the social stratosphere is spewed across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and dozens of other sites from Google Buzz to Zoho. Politicians can no longer control the social media message. With TownHall, Microsoft promises integration with Facebook fan pages and other third-party sites via available widgets.

Built on Windows Azure, TownHall “can be accessed in real-time through any mobile device,” says Microsoft spokepeople Pamela Passman and Curt Kolcun in a blog post.. The code can be downloaded for free, under a custom Microsoft license that allows the code to be modified and shared. TownHall will reamin free until July, 2010, but Microsoft has not disclosed pricing for after that date.
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In itself, TownHall seems useful enough for a lot of projects, if you are a Microsoft shop and wanted to build a community site on Azure and not run a full-blown premises app like like Jive or Telligent. TownHall run polls, offers forums to host discussions, lets users post questions that others can vote up or down, let’s uses earn points on applications like games to build their reputations. Analytics are run in Microsoft’s cloud version of SQL Server, known as SQL Azure.

And although I’m sure there must be dozens of FOSS tools like this available (though a quick search for some couldn’t find one that integrates polls with reputations on a cloud platform), Microsoft MCITP Certification lists four resellers that can be hired to install and manage TownHall. That could cost more than a FOSS tool but is good for those politicians (martian or human) who want to use this as a serious, supported tool.

NASA has done some especially fun things with it. The Be a Martian site is actually built with Azure’s Silverlight .Net APIs (a tool code-named Dallas).

NASA Be A Martian site

One of the star features of the NASA site is the Pathfinder Innovation Challenge programming contest in which participants are asked to write code that runs on Azure and helps identify NASA photos. (Prizes range from Zune players to trips to see the launch of the next Mars Rover.) There’s also a movie-making challenge and games for K-12 students. Site visitors can also send postcards to the Spirit Rover, build maps of Mars, tour Mars and so on, all via Silverlight. TownHall lets them build reputation points for participating and game playing along the way.