States Aim to Launch More Mobile Apps

According to a February 2012 survey of 100 members of GovTech Exchange, an online community of senior-level IT pros from state and local government, 38 percent of respondents planned to launch new mobile offerings within 12 months.
April 27, 2012
 

By Hilton Collins, Government Technology

Robert Meza, project lead for California’s mobile strategy, heads a team that’s working to make the state portal a destination for on-the-go taxpayers — and their efforts are generating results. An average of nearly 2,000 people access Ca.gov from handheld devices daily, and iPhone and Android traffic constitutes 95 percent of it.

With the proliferation of smartphones in our society — there are 91.4 million devices in the United States alone, according to data compiled by GO-Gulf.com — governments are adapting their presence and offerings to what users want: mobile access.

Many state and local jurisdictions are already on top of things, according to a February 2012 survey of 100 members of GovTech Exchange, an online community of senior-level IT pros from state and local government. The survey found that 38 percent of respondents planned to launch new mobile offerings within 12 months. (Another 23 percent said they weren’t sure.) Of those planning new deployments, 55 percent said they will use responsive design techniques that allow a single source of content to be viewed by multiple device types and operating systems. Roughly half said they’ll create the apps using in-house developers, while the other half planned to work with outside developers.

Platform-Agnostic Apps

Use of responsive design is on the upswing in state government, according to Nolan Jones, vice president of eGovernment innovation at NIC. “It’s growing in popularity,” he said. “Basically, the vision behind that is [that] the end user shouldn’t worry about how they’re accessing information.”

That’s the approach being taken in California. Instead of using platform-specific native apps that users download from digital stores like iTunes, the California Technology Agency (CTA) is building no-frills mobile websites that adapt to whatever operating system or device a user has, no downloads necessary.

Though some California agencies have native apps, they’re a rarity, Meza said, adding that the state’s focus on responsive design saves time and money. “Some of the federal programs and other states that launched an iPhone app are under tremendous pressure now, ‘Where’s my Android app? Where’s my Windows phone app?’” Meza said. “We’re never going to be iPhone or Android fanboys.”

California is in good company, according to a 2011 assessment of state portals conducted by e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government. Twenty-eight states had mobile-optimized versions of their government portals, the assessment found. But 31 also had native apps for specific platforms, suggesting that despite the drawback to platform-specific apps, both solutions have value.

Delaware Parks Guide

As of mid-March, Delaware was one of 12 states with a native Pocket Ranger parks and recreation app from ParksByNature Network, and at least eight more states will have apps available as well soon. The company even plans to one day launch a national, 50-state parks app with help from the nonprofit America’s State Parks.

The free Official Delaware State Parks Guide, available for Apple iOS and Android, is a mobile tour guide in the Pocket Ranger series. Users browse state parks by region, activity or type of environment, and the app provides the locations and hours of operation for each one, thanks to enhanced GPS features. Users cache maps to their device and use 3G or Wi-Fi service to view interactive GPS maps and leave markers, called waypoints, on maps to track their movements. Users also can sync their device with friends’ or relatives’ devices to create a network where people track one another, which is handy if someone is in trouble.

Because the state has a revenue-sharing arrangement with ParksByNature, both will profit from in-app purchases. Delaware only has used Pocket Ranger since fall 2011, however, so the state has not yet seen substantial rewards. According to Chris Polo, chief of creative services for Delaware State Parks, there were about 8,000 downloads as of winter 2011 — not bad for one of the smallest states in the country, she said.

Development on the Delaware State Parks Guide began in summer 2011 after ParksByNature approached Delaware for permission to use state data. “The state paid absolutely nothing. It was all done by ParksByNature,” Polo said. App purchases generate extra money for a government, easing the burden on taxpayers. And if an app’s popular enough, the revenue could help save a park from closure.

Open Transportation, Open Data

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), a division of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), featured a staggering 50 apps on its website as of March 2012. They comprise Web apps like MBTAway, which uses a mobile device’s GPS or Wi-Fi to provide a list of nearby bus stops, and native apps like Where’s My MBTA Rail? for Apple iOS, which uses GPS to offer real-time tracking of commuter rail lines.

And none of them was created by the state. MassDOT provides open data to developers, whether they’re companies or regular citizens. The licensing agreement allows anyone to use real-time and static traffic data to build apps for consumers. Available data sets include CSV, XML and JavaScript Object Notation files as well as Google’s GTFS-realtime specification.

The state saves money and manpower by leaving the development up to citizens and companies. “I think it’s always important for a government in a time of tight budgets,” said Josh Robin, MBTA’s director of innovation and special projects. “We need to look for the private sector to be involved in the solution, and this is an area where we have that opportunity.”

The state takes a hands-off approach to give developers freedom. Consequently many of the MBTA’s apps duplicate the same services, but not all are created equal. Robin doesn’t find the plethora of apps problematic because the market will decide which gains traction.

California’s strategy is similar. In February 2012, the CTA launched version 3.0 of the state’s free mobile Web template, which lets developers use state data to create mobile Web apps in ASP, C# .NET and PHP. Thirty-five state departments already used earlier versions of the template, and their apps are offered on Ca.gov’s mobile site today.

California’s templates are open to government agencies, private companies or citizens. The CTA’s Meza is confident this is the right approach. “Some departments on peak periods, we’ve seen as much as 25 percent of their Web traffic come from mobile devices,” he said. “We know there’s a huge demand, and this is the correct model for governments.”

Meza and colleagues closely track mobile traffic to the California state portal, and they’re getting a better idea of what citizens want. Two of the most sought-after data sets are real-time traffic information and state park locations. “We’ve been logging where everybody’s been going, so we know which apps they’re clicking on,” he said.

NIC’s Jones said that hunting and fishing apps also are a hit with the states.

Choosing the Right Path

GovTech Exchange survey respondents didn’t differentiate between native and Web apps, but Jones doesn’t see either vanishing because each has pros and cons. For example, although it’s cumbersome to redeploy native apps for different platforms, it’s possible for citizens to use native apps without an Internet connection. Native apps with embedded data and processes can operate without Web access. On the other hand, Web apps are universal and adaptable, but they’re dependent on Web access, so a user with a slow connection or no connection at all is out of luck.

Regardless of application type, government mobility will continue to grow. “It’s a great time for mobile, and it’s an exciting time because I think there’s a lot of potential, especially in revolutionizing how government employees perform their functions,” Jones said. “I think in the next few years, you’re going to see fundamental shifts about how government does its job.”

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