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By Steve Kelman

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The next big thing in government smartphone apps

Shutterstock image: mobile data concept.

There was a fascinating story recently in BloombergBusinessweek called “Now a Phone Can Be a Driver’s License, Too.” It focused on an app being rolled out in Iowa (developed by a Boston-area identity authentication company called MorphoTrust USA) that will allow people to have their driver’s license on their smartphone. (I saw the original article in hard copy, and annoyingly it is not available online at the magazine’s website, but here’s a link to an article from the Des Moines Register from last December on the topic.)

First, an obvious question: Why is this potentially a good thing, and not just a case of technology advances for their own sake? After all, the article notes some practical implementation issues in rolling out such a system, such as what to do if a police officer wants to see your license and your phone has run out of juice? (I’m thinking that if this spreads, police cars will need to be equipped with Apple and Samsung rechargers.) And the article also notes that producing the license in app form, including voice or facial recognition software and digital watermarks, will cost about the same as current laminated licenses, so this is not a cost saver.

The answer is that the app will allow Iowa agencies to communicate with drivers by text message or other means -- for example, providing traffic information or extreme weather warnings. “It’s really changing what we do and what we think of as a license,” the head of the Iowa DMV said. “It really has the chance to transform this static thing in your pocket to an ongoing customer relationship.”

This new way of thinking about paper-based identity or other kinds of personal documents is something I would urge federal managers to put into their heads. While we need to think about important practical questions and possible privacy objections (though presumably such app-based solutions would not be compulsory, and those who did use them could opt out from receiving messages), what I prefer to emphasize is the potential such use of smartphones opens up for government.  

This is why The Economist recently called smartphones the most-important technological advance of the century. Smartphone-based visas for foreigners coming to the U.S.? Medicare cards as smartphone apps? I'm not sure if these are good ideas, but I’m convinced there are good ideas waiting to be developed by government folks and IT vendors.

Government and industry need to think outside the proverbial box to see how we can use new technologies in ways nobody had thought of using them before. So it will be interesting to watch the efforts in Iowa (and North Carolina, where a similar system is under development) to see if these pave the way for more use of smartphone apps for government documents.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 10, 2015 at 4:21 PM

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Reader comments

Wed, Mar 11, 2015 Lou

Thanks, Steve. Even if conversations don't lead to such uses, the very fact that gov and industry engage and explore will lead to innovations. The conversation is key.

Wed, Mar 11, 2015 Richard Louisiana

A smart phone app sounds good, but it should be more like Apple Pay. You still have the plastic license, but it is registered on your phone also. This allows such things as "my battery died" or "I lost my phone" but still allows the customer connection the article speaks of. There are too many security concerns before this becomes an legally acceptable form of ID (just because you can does not mean you should), but the application usages abound.

Wed, Mar 11, 2015

It seems that renewals might represent a cost saving aspect. Also this would allow for reminders to renew being sent via text message and also flagging expired licenses. It would be interesting to see if the license would meet the requirements of the Real ID Act.

Tue, Mar 10, 2015 Al

This seems like another front on the War on my Wallet that Apple began with Apple Pay. While traffic and weather info is easily obtainable by anyone with a smartphone already, a smartphone can be wiped of its data remotely if stolen. My physical Driver's License cannot be wiped remotely.

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