Mobile challenges go beyond the technical

The challenges facing federal agencies that develop their own wireless applications can leap beyond technical nuts-and-bolts issues into the wider world of everyday demands.

Yes, agencies have to decide between HTML5 and native device architecture. But more prosaically, they have to address questions such as: How do you use the app when you';re a couple hundred feet underground?

"We have a great opportunity to engage mine operators" with mobile labor applications, said Mike Pulsifer, manager of mobile programs at the Labor Department. "But there is no cell service at many mine locations."

DHS Car Wash mobile app tester diagram

Broadband wireless availability is just one of the many challenges federal agencies face in their quest to more efficiently provide government services and data, Pulsifer said during a Dec. 12 AFCEA panel discussion in Bethesda, Md. "People want answers quick," said Atiq Warraich, Web program director in the National Archives and Records Administration's Office of Innovation. The government's challenge is to meet that demand in a cash-strapped environment, he added, which requires understanding potential users and how they might use the available data.

NARA is making a vast amount of information available via its Citizen Archivist Dashboard, where volunteers electronically tag, transcribe and write articles about documents that NARA posts on the site. Warraich said making such raw data available to consumers can go a long way in developing better mobile applications. The "citizen workforce" accessing the dashboard could be extended to create a "mobile citizen workforce" that can develop its own set of apps more efficiently than NARA might be able to, he added.

That's not to say agencies don't face a series of basic technical questions. Keith Trippie executive director of the Enterprise System Development Office in the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the CIO, raised the question of whether it is better to use HTML5 or a native mobile operating platform to present information via mobile apps.

The responses showed that application development is closely tied to an individual agency's data. Jacob Parcell, manager of mobile programs at the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, said each approach has its advantages.

"The benefit for HTML5 [is] that it is platform agnostic," he said. "You don't have to worry about individual devices." On the other hand, you won't get the advantages of smartphones' inherent operating abilities.

"Ask yourself what you're doing," Parcell said. "Is it a mostly one-time information-based use, or is it a product or service that needs more connectivity?"

Trippie noted that cultural issues could also have an impact on mobile application development. For instance, the impulse for agencies to build their own apps could hamper them in the long run because they might reinvent something that other agencies have already put together.

He advocated using apps developed by agencies or bits and pieces from existing apps. He touted DHS' development of the "car wash" mobile app tester as an example of the resources agencies have at their disposal. DHS uses the tester to run new federal mobile apps through a series of security and accessibility checks before they are released.

Parcell said GSA launched the Mobile Code Catalog last summer as a clearinghouse of federal apps, commonly used coding and mobile frameworks. Using existing and tested coding and frameworks can take some of the hard work out of app development, he added.

The panelists called on industry to help agencies move through the technical aspects of developing mobile applications. Commercial app developers are sometimes better at exploiting the huge volumes of data flowing from federal agencies, and they can also help by allowing agencies to reuse existing code to develop new apps.

"Instead of building one app, build 10" based on code used in previous apps, Trippie said. "We don't have the cash" for one-off projects.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer covering acquisition, procurement and homeland security. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.


  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above