Government to go

EPA and others discover easy ways to serve constituents carrying cell phones

When it comes to serving the public through the Web, Jeffrey Levy is thinking small. The reason: The Environmental Protection Agency's director of Web communications is getting positive feedback and good click-through rates from a stripped-down version of the agency’s Web site that premiered two months ago.

The modest new site, tailored to load quickly on the small screens of mobile phones and other handheld devices, comes on the heels of an ambitious redesign of the primary EPA site, now filled with colorful graphics and attention-grabbing video clips. In place of glitz, EPA Mobile is a throwback to the early days of text-only content on the Internet.

Like a handful of other federal and state agencies, EPA launched its mobile site to offer another channel for public interaction, in this case with the growing number of people who use mobile phones to access information on the Web.

Levy also discovered establishing the site was a good deal from the agency’s perspective: it required only modest amounts of staff members' time and some basic HTML coding skills to create streams of mobile content that flow from the main Web site.

“There’s nothing magical here,” Levy said.

The payoff is a mobile presence that promotes the agency’s brand and delivers needed information to constituents, including potentially life-saving content in the case of an environmental alert or, in the case of the National Weather Service, a storm warning. Information technology managers also see their work as a foundation for the future that would allow two-way communications between agencies and the millions of cell phone users.

Repurposing instead of rewriting

The idea for EPA's Mobile Web site came up early last year when Levy and his colleagues were exploring a range of new communications options, including social media and Web 2.0 collaboration tools.

Levy realized that a mobile site would need to keep it simple with basic information and text menus to cater to a broad set of handheld device users. Despite the positive outlook for high-end, 3G phones like Apple’s iPhone and its competitors, agencies shouldn’t forget about the millions of modest handhelds still running on slower cellular networks.

“With a typical cell phone, you’re basically back to the Gopher world,” Levy said, referring to the Internet text interface that predated graphical browsers.

EPA uses custom-coded HTML instructions and some open-source tools to convert information on the main site for display on mobile devices. The concept is to create the source information once and then provide it to people in multiple ways, Levy said.

The site also features EPA’s eco-oriented Greenversations blog that uses WordPress, an open-source blog-publishing application that automatically detects new blog entries and strips out graphics before the entry appears on a mobile device.

A similar process occurs when EPA issues news releases, which first are saved to a central database. EPA technicians developed HTML codes that eliminate extraneous graphics and other resource-clogging elements so that mobile users see only basic text when they call up the releases from the database.

The National Weather Service, which was among the first federal agencies to court on-the-go constituents in response to requests for no-frills content, takes a similar approach to feeding information to its mobile site, said Ron Jones, an Internet project specialist at the service.

Most of the forecast information on the service’s Web sites is dynamically generated. As soon as a new piece of weather information comes into the service’s database, it’s parsed out and immediately displayed in the appropriate format for conventional or mobile Web pages.

“We’re one of the few government organizations that deals in the here and now,” Jones said. Mariners, emergency managers and people who spend a lot of time on the road are among the biggest users of the service's mobile Web pages, he added.

State agencies also might find that efforts to develop Web sites for mobile users can dovetail with plans to make content more accessible to people with disabilities. Those complementary goals prompted Maine to create its mobile site, said Richard Thompson, Maine’s chief information officer. He added that simplified page designs and navigation schemes accommodate both groups.

Maine’s mobile site offers a variety of information feeds, ranging from state office closings and severe weather and emergency alerts to news releases, state and local agency directories, polling place locations, and the latest lottery numbers. The number of people using the site has risen steadily. The site received 56,319 hits in January, up from 14,950 hits in January 2008.

Picking the content

To figure out what content would be most valuable on its mobile site, EPA Web managers solicited input from outsiders along with staff members who regularly access Web sites on their mobile phones.

They decided on a spare menu of a few links plus a simple map that viewers can click on to find agency contact information for their geographical region. One of the menu selections enables mobile users to contact the agency to report environmental emergencies.

“That was probably the first thing that we all thought of, so if something is happening right in front of me I can tell EPA,” Levy said.

The EPA Mobile site also has a link so people can provide feedback to improve it. Some of the advice has proved surprising. One constituent requested mobile access to Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations for the environment, which spans several hundred pages.

“We were stunned," Levy said. "So much for not dumping a huge amount of information onto a small screen."

When EPA followed up, it learned the user was a compliance auditor for a commercial company who needs code citations when he’s inspecting facilities. The mobile site now prominently displays a link to the complete code set maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Levy expects to add more varied content and interactive applications to the mobile site as he shows other EPA program officers the basic framework and its growing popularity.

One idea is to create a mobile version of EPA’s UV Index, a tool that appears on the agency's regular Web site that lets visitors determine the risk level of overexposure to harmful ultraviolet rays for a given time and area. The UV Index application in its current form would overload mobile users with too much information. A mobile version of the application would produce just a UV risk number and specific health warnings for that number.

“The idea is to give you a health indicator when you are getting ready for your day,” Levy said.

About the Author

Alan Joch is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire.

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