Want to know the weather? There’s an app for that. Want to know how long the TSA security line is at the airport? There’s an app for that, too.
In 2012, President Obama’s digital government plan ordered federal agencies to create at least two mobile apps. A lot has happened since then, and at all levels of government.
More than 90 percent of American adults own a cellphone, and most of those are smartphones. Mobile apps – programs designed to work on devices such as smart phones and tablets – were first introduced commercially in 2008 and were an immediate commercial success. In fact, the average smartphone user has about 40 apps on his or her device, and uses them to find restaurants, shop and check the weather.
Apps are increasingly becoming an avenue for how citizens interact with their government as well. Government-created or -supported mobile apps offer on-the-go services such as finding and paying for parking spaces, reporting potholes and damaged streetlights, checking restaurant health safety violations, and reading e-books from the local library.
In a new report for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, Sukumar Ganapati documents the state of mobile apps at the federal, state and local levels. He describes two types of apps that have evolved:
- Enterprise-focused apps, which are used by public employees to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.
- Citizen-focused apps, which offer real-time public services and engagement.
Ganapati also offers insights on lessons that could be applied by governments at all levels when they consider whether and how to approach the design and implementation of apps in their own agencies.
Ganapati observes that customized, agency-developed apps for internal use by employees to do their work are still at a very early stage of development in most agencies at the federal, state and local levels. He notes: “Enterprise-focused apps should be role-based to facilitate user needs, and task-oriented toward solving a specific issue, or a set of issues.” For example, enterprise-focused apps can:
Aid in managing mobile assets. The General Services Administration’s FMS2Go app is used to manage over 200,000 vehicles in its fleet, deploying and routing them in real time with greater flexibility. In addition, remote sensor “Internet of Things” technologies can evaluate the condition of the vehicles and can provide cost savings for fleet repair and maintenance.
Increase employees’ productivity. Los Angeles’ InsideLA app allows city employees to access an employee directory, an IT help ticketing system, and connect to other internal city web apps – all through a secure login system.
Reduce field workers’ administrative burdens. The Pennsylvania Transportation Department’s Posted and Bonded Road app reduces manual, paper-based reports on surveys and audits of posted and bonded roads, and allows workers to upload photos of road conditions. Direct uploads of reports reduce intervening human errors and increase survey data quality.
Encourage collaboration and networking among agency field offices. NASA employees working on the same issue in different locations use the same app, ExplorNet, to share information in real time in the field. Mobile collaborative tools can also be crucial in emergency management and law enforcement.
Ganapati found that most federal, state, and local government apps focus on citizen services and increasingly on engaging citizens in decision-making processes.
Federal citizen-oriented apps. As a result of the 2012 Digital Strategy, most federal agencies have at least one type of citizen-oriented app. There are five categories of federal citizen-oriented apps:
- Information and news service apps provide information about agency services, news or data (e.g., the Commerce Department’s BusinessUSA).
- Client services apps provide on-the-go services (e.g., the Internal Revenue Service’s IRS2go).
- Crowdsourcing apps obtain information volunteered from users that agencies cannot obtain by themselves. (e.g., myTSA, which crowdsources the wait time in security lines from passengers).
- Health and safety information apps are being used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Food and Drug Administration to provide information on disaster assistance and drug shortages.
- Educational apps are fun and explore aspects of a theme, aiming toward gamification (e.g., the Smithsonian Institution’s range of apps)
State-local citizen-oriented apps. Citizen-oriented apps provided by state and local governments can be classified into four categories:
- Information on parks, recreation, and leisure activities is oriented to tourists (e.g., park guides developed by ParksByNature Network in many states).
- Traffic and transit information apps provide details in real time and place. The 511 apps by state departments of transportation give traffic conditions on the highways, so drivers can adjust their driving routes accordingly.
- Public engagement apps include 311 apps, which help citizens obtain non-emergency services (e.g., fixing a pothole or a streetlight).
- Third party civic apps for government are developed by citizen groups, nonprofit agencies, and private sector entities using local government data. Public agencies have held app competitions and hackathons to develop such apps.
DESIGNING GOVERNMENT APPS
The White House has encouraged federal agencies to adopt a “mobile first” strategy when designing or redesigning their websites. But there is more to it than that. Ganapati says there are three options agencies need to consider when developing their apps:
- Native apps, which are downloaded onto a mobile device and take maximum advantage of the device’s hardware features (e.g., camera, etc.)
- Web apps, which are sites that use responsive Web design features (i.e., HTML5) so the same Web app can be accessed from different kinds of devices (e.g., iPhones, Android phones, as well as various tablets).
- Hybrid apps combine the features of native and Web apps. Like native apps, they are accessed through an app gateway and installed on a mobile device, but like web apps they can work across platforms.
Each of these options has its plusses and minuses. Native apps, for example, are technically complex and need to be customized for each type of mobile operating system. The benefit, however, is that because the app resides on the device, it could function when there is no Internet connectively. On the other hand, Web apps can be accessed and automatically optimized for different devices, thereby avoiding the cost of customizing the app. But they require access to the Internet to work. Ganapati offers a checklist of criteria for assessing which option is best, depending on an app’s intended use and users.
Ganapati cautions that not everything on government websites should be converted to an app. Rather, he encourages government agencies to “strategically assess their existing online services and engage the public in identifying those which would be most valued on various mobile devices.” After all, having an app to apply for Social Security – a once-in-a-lifetime event – is different than checking traffic reports, which could be several times a day.
Here are three recommendations that Ganapati offers for enhancing the value of mobile apps in government:
- Optimize online services for mobile devices. Government agencies should strategically assess their online services to see if they should be made available via apps on mobile devices in order to make public services more accessible.
- Provide open data based on common standards. Public agencies are treasure troves of public domain data that they collect in the course of their day-to-day work. Making data available proactively, in machine readable formats based on common standards, can assist third parties in creating a range of useful mobile apps.
- Assess the feasibility of using standard data structures across and within agencies. Standardizing the way data is structured would enable different public agencies to provide consistent data. Apps can then use data from different agencies, with little or no customization across jurisdictions.
John M. Kamensky is a senior research fellow and Susan Wedge is vice president and mobile services leader for the public sector at IBM.