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When a Baltimore geek goes political

Dave Troy knows computers, social media and the power of the Internet. He is a successful entrepreneur — and one of the most influential figures in local technology circles, according to Baltimore magazine.

Now he's dabbling in politics.

Over the weekend, Troy posted an endorsement of Baltimore Democratic mayoral candidate Otis F. Rolley III on his personal blog, Fueled By Randomness. Rolley is a 36-year-old city planner with a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who headed Baltimore's planning department and served as chief of staff under former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

While Troy is not a household name, he is trying to leverage his online audience, which can reach thousands of people in the city and beyond, to help Rolley. "His is a voice that deserves to be heard, and I felt that by endorsing him publicly now, it might encourage others to check him out and do the same," Troy said.

It wouldn't be the first time that politicians have tried to tap technology and Internet pros for their campaigns.

Efforts range from George W. Bush campaigners' using e-mail lists in 2000 to reach voters, to President Barack Obama's use of social media in the 2008 campaign, according to Steven R. Davy, a correspondent at PBS' MediaShift blog who compiled a chronology of the ways technology has influenced American politics. In almost every year of the past decade, there were key moments in politics and the use of the Internet, the chronology shows.

"I was pumped to get Dave's endorsement," Rolley said. "There's a huge untapped power base in the city," he added, referring to the technology community.

Here are some statistics: On Twitter, Troy has more than 3,300 followers. Rolley has 444, while Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has more than 3,800.

On Facebook, Troy has more than 1,100 friends. Rolley's political Facebook page has 209 fans. Rawlings-Blake has reached the Facebook maximum of 5,000 friends.

But one reality of Baltimore politics is that not everybody in the voting public uses the Internet — the city has a low Internet usage penetration rate in general, according to a survey by the Federal Communications Commission. So it's open to debate how vital an Internet-and-social-media campaign strategy is for a political candidate, or even how important it is to appeal to tech-savvy voters.

Rawlings-Blake, for her part, has pushed for more transparency in city government using technology. Her administration is working to unveil large sets of data from city agencies that will give the public — and eager tech geeks — material to create new Web mashups that inform the public about government operations.

Ryan O'Doherty, a City Hall spokesman, said one of the first steps Rawlings-Blake took when she entered office last year was sign up for a Twitter account. She used it to communicate with residents during the February blizzards.

The mayor also is planning on rolling out a social media campaign, using YouTube and other online outlets, to promote her illegal-gun legislation in the General Assembly later this year, O'Doherty said.

Last year, Troy led a grassroots effort called Bmore Fiber, which attracted support from thousands of people who wanted the city to apply to win a pilot project offered by Google to give a city ultra-high-speed broadband Internet access.

Rawlings-Blake embraced the effort. And when it came time for Rawlings-Blake to submit the electronic application to Google in March, Troy was by her side in the mayor's office. (Google hasn't announced a project winner yet.)

Troy, 39, has more than two decades' experience in Maryland's technology community. At 14, he was running a mail-order computer sales firm, and later founded an Internet service provider called ToadNet, which competed with Verizon and Comcast.

Writing in his blog, Troy forecasts that "the simultaneous rise in the demand for urban living along with the use of the Internet for political and community organizing will usher in an era of unprecedented change in American cities."

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Cool App

Skype, an Internet telephone application, has been available on the iPhone for a while now, but a recent update makes it feel like a brand new (free) app. Users can now make two-way video chat calls with the latest iPhone 4, on both Wi-Fi and 3G connections.

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