Mobile governments on the move

In Texas, state inspectors use handheld devices to issue violations to barbershops

on the spot. California zaps lottery, traffic and energy information to

people's personal digital assistants. Virginians can track bills through

the legislative process with hourly updates sent to their mobile device.

More and more, governments are using handheld and wireless devices to

provide more access to public data, enable employees to communicate with

each other, and give public servants, such as building inspectors and police

officers, another tool to do their jobs more efficiently.

In essence, they're becoming mobile governments, or m-governments for

short.

Nationally, wireless Internet usage is projected to increase from 5

million to 84 million users by 2005, according to IDC. It also projected

that the mobile and remote worker population will grow from about 39 million

to about 55 million by 2004.

The buzz for wireless and mobile uses in government is "tremendous,"

said Kol Harvey, a technology consultant with accounting and consulting

firm Berry, Dunn, McNeil and Parker. He was one of three e-government experts

at a session examining mobile government during the National Electronic

Commerce Coordinating Council's annual conference in Las Vegas this week.

An NECCC workgroup also presented a white paper on the convergence of wireless

technologies and e-government.

Governments mainly use wireless and mobile devices to provide employees

with e-mail communication, Harvey said. But wireless devices are also used

in educational institutions and to provide citizen services.

Harvey's advice for governments considering mobile and wireless devices

included:

* Start by implementing their use internally.

* If transmitting sensitive or confidential data, ensure that security

is robust.

* Training employees in how to use the devices and software is paramount.

In Kentucky, state employees have been using Research in Motion Ltd.'s

BlackBerry wireless messaging devices for nearly a year. Doug Robinson with

the Governor's Office of Technology said more than 200 state employees use

the devices, which are integrated into the government's existing e-mail

accounts, and the office manages about 130,000 wireless messages per month.

Response is positive, he said, but adoption is slow, probably because

of budget tightening among the state's agencies, which must purchase the

devices.

Robinson said the devices are reliable and help improve productivity

among employees, but the wireless network coverage is poor, especially in

non-urban areas.

P.K. Agarwal, chief information officer of NIC, said a lot of promise

— as well as a lot of hype — exists in the wireless industry for mobile

technology. The promise was dampened by the economic downturn, which slowed

the deployment of higher bandwidth to handle more traffic. Also, because

there is no single wireless standard, interoperability could be a problem,

he said. And problems with other promising technologies, such as the Bluetooth

short-distance wireless technology, also hindered the adoption and integration

of mobile devices.

But Agarwal said there are three categories of applications where m-government

will make a difference. The public safety area is the "most classic and

most cost-effective" use, he said. With cell and landline phone communications

down in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, New York City officials used

BlackBerry devices to communicate critical information. The delivery of

services, such as sending updates and information to handheld devices, is

the second good use, and messaging among government employees is the third.

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