Gov 2.0 on the go: Agencies hit it big with mobile apps

EDITOR'S NOTE: This was updated April 8, 2011, to correct Jody Engel's title. 

Let's say the family is getting ready to fly home after a visit to the grandparents, who, as a parting gift, hand their grandchild a lifelike "Star Wars" lightsaber. It's a great present, but what you need to know is whether you can bring it on the airplane.

That is one of the questions for which the Transportation Security Administration created its popular MyTSA mobile application, which launched last year.

Here is how MyTSA answers that question: “Sadly, the technology doesn't currently exist to create a real lightsaber. However, you can pack a toy lightsaber in your carry-on or checked bag. May the Force be with you.”

Granted, it is not a typical question — or a typical answer. But MyTSA gives useful information, often with an unexpected flourish.

“It shows that the TSA has a sense of humor,” said Lynn Dean, project manager of MyTSA, in a recent presentation to federal new-media managers.

The example gives an idea of how far TSA has come and the confidence it has gained in offering helpful, accurate, timely information to consumers through a convenient mobile platform. More than 200,000 users have downloaded MyTSA to their smart phones. The app’s “Can I Bring?” database for permissible carry-on and checked baggage items has doubled in size from 1,200 to 2,500 items — and even includes toy lightsabers.

Mobile devices have been a hot topic for federal employees for a while, and federal mobile applications for consumers are also in the spotlight. Agencies have already tackled many of the challenges associated with smart-phone applications, including those related to design, development, evolving technologies, security, privacy, cost, marketing, analytics, and ongoing maintenance and support.

As a sign of agencies’ growing interest in mobile applications, the General Services Administration's Government Web and New Media Conference in March presented several sessions on mobile technologies to packed audiences.

To date, lists 31 government applications designed for the public, with more under construction. Now the drive for agencies to share their data via mobile platforms is starting to build momentum.

“In some ways, we have probably reached the tipping point for mobile,” said Gwynne Kostin, director of mobile applications at GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. “It will be exciting to watch.”

According to a July 2010 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 40 percent of Americans accessed the Internet, e-mail or instant messaging on a mobile phone in 2010, up from 32 percent in 2009.

The percentage of Americans who can access the Internet using smart phones and other mobile devices is expected to grow from 39 percent in 2010 to 59 percent in 2014, according to a study by Yahoo this year. Also by 2014, more people will access the Internet on mobile devices than on desktop PCs, according to a study by Morgan Stanley.

“A large number of people see the inevitability of mobile applications,” Kostin said. “For government, it will take strategy and rethinking of systems.”

Mobile applications come in a variety of forms. One of the first to be adopted by agencies was text messaging. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, uses it to send emergency alerts to the public. FEMA also has a special website designed for mobile users. Other applications run on smart phones or tablet PCs and partner with third-party platforms to deliver information and services.

The cost of agencies’ investment in mobile applications is minimal, Kostin said, but over time, it will become a bigger factor. She estimated that a simple application costs about $50,000 to develop, a midsize application costs $100,000, and a complex application with gaming features might cost $500,000.

Kostin said mobile applications typically fall into three main categories: They’re for entertainment or education; they help accomplish a task, such as reserving a ticket; or they provide immediate information relevant to the user’s geographic location, such as nearby restaurants and gas stations.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda, social media director at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said the advantage of mobile applications is that they can offer information when and where users need it. With MyTSA, for example, that means getting guidance on what to pack when you’re actually packing your luggage.

“I think actionable information is better,” Ben-Yehuda said. “It is great if you can take a virtual tour of the Library of Congress on your mobile phone, but on a day-to-day basis, I don’t think that is something that your average citizen is going to find very useful.”

On the other hand, a mobile application such as the Agriculture Department’s MyFood-a-pedia, which offers nutrition data and calorie counts for thousands of food items, can be instantly useful if you are at a grocery store trying to decide between carrots or celery, he said.

“I think that type of mobile application is going to drive home, for most people, the true value of the data that the government has,” he said. “It turns the data from something in a list or table or something that seems inscrutable to information that can actually help them make a decision.”

For example, using mobile devices to search for medical information is becoming a standard practice. “With mobile, we have good information, and people will use their devices to find it,” said Miguel Gomez, director of the Health and Human Services Department’s The site offers links to nearly a dozen text messaging-based mobile applications, such as appointment reminders and locations of nearby HIV testing centers.

“What scares me is that not enough of my colleagues are planning for mobile,” Gomez added. “We need evangelists.”

However, there can be minefields along the way, he said. For example, put messages on highway billboards telling people they could use their smart phones to obtain information on HIV testing. “Unfortunately, some people considered that encouraging people to text while driving,” Gomez said.

Here are profiles of how other federal agencies are delving into the rapidly evolving field of innovative mobile technologies.

IRS2Go: Money on the go

Internal Revenue Service officials got the idea for creating a mobile application for tracking tax refunds because that is the most common reason visitors come to the agency’s website, said Terry Lemons, communications director at the IRS.

About 75 percent of taxpayers receive refunds, and the majority who use the IRS website and phone services are calling to ask where their refund is, he said.

To capitalize on that interest, IRS officials created IRS2Go for iPhone and Android smart phones. It allows users to find out the status of their tax refunds by entering their Social Security number, filing status and estimated refund amount. The information is encrypted to protect their privacy. The IRS informs them if their tax return has been accepted and the approximate date when their refund will be issued. Users can also use the app to subscribe to e-mail tax updates or the IRS’ Twitter feed.

IRS2Go launched Jan. 15, and within two months, 110,000 iPhone users and 135,000 Android users had downloaded the app.

It was developed in-house for less than $50,000. About a third of the cost was for security features, said Beth Krappweis, an IT specialist at the IRS.

My Dietary Supplements: A dose of health data

Jody Engel, a nutritionist at the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, recognizes how difficult it is to keep track of one’s vitamins, diet pills, herbal remedies and nutritional supplements in addition to prescription drugs. Yet pooling that information is vital because many substances can have harmful interactions.

“When you are at the doctor’s office filling out the form indicating what supplements you are taking, how many people can remember, at that moment, all that information, including dosage?” Engel asked.

The goal of the My Dietary Supplements (MyDS) mobile application is to help individuals keep track of such information easily and conveniently and in a format that is readily accessible when visiting a physician or pharmacist.

The application allows the user to input information on what supplements he or she is taking, how often and at what dose. It also allows the user to create profiles for multiple individuals, such as a child or ailing parent.

MyDS went live in October 2010 for the iPhone and is also available for the iPad and other devices via the Web. It cost about $75,000 to $80,000 to develop, Engel said.

Initial costs rose midway through development because Apple updated its iPhone operating system, and MyDS had to be reconfigured for the new platform.

Some legal issues also took months to resolve, Engel said, including developing effective communications with Apple. When NIH started the project, the company did not have a dedicated channel for dealing with developers at federal agencies.

After the project went live, the agency recognized the need to provide ongoing support. “A mobile application development is not completed once the application is released,” Engel said. “You have to control, monitor, manage, update, support and promote it.”

National Archives on Foursquare: Information on location

When Foursquare users check in via mobile phone at the Washington Monument, the National Archives and Records Administration is ready to send a tip on how to best experience that historic location, along with a photo of the monument when it was under construction.

At the Supreme Court, NARA includes a link to an audio recording of former President Bill Clinton on the death of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. At the Lincoln Memorial, it links to scenes from the movie “March on Washington.”

The Archives’ collaboration with Foursquare, which launched in February with the help of museums and presidential libraries, offers information at dozens of historic locations. Users can also submit tips on how they experienced the sites.

“With the help of Foursquare, the National Archives is reaching out to people where they live and where they visit, encouraging Archives fans to leave tips coast to coast,” agency officials said in a news release.

The project can be accessed via Foursquare’s mobile application or a Web browser. For NARA, development cost about 120 hours in staff time, said Jill James, NARA’s social media manager. Foursquare is providing a brand page to NARA for free, she added.

MyTSA: Tips for travelers

MyTSA, which is available as an iPhone application or via the Web, allows users to ask whether specific items are permitted on airplanes. It also provides information on general delays and estimates of security line wait times at each airport.

The security wait times are based on information fed into the system by travelers using MyTSA at those airports. As more people enter information, the estimates become more accurate and timelier, said Neil Bonner, technical manager for MyTSA.

“People really wanted waiting time information,” Bonner said. “It is only as good as what folks give back.”

MyTSA cost about $80,000 to $100,000 to develop, Dean said. Launched in July 2010, it was recently recognized as the Best Mobile App in the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council’s Excellence.Gov awards program.


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