VIDEO: Agencies embrace mobile app explosion

Monday - 4/9/2012, 9:46am EDT

The development of mobile applications is swiftly expanding within the federal government. When the General Services Administration launched its app store two years ago, the website offered 15 apps. Today, there are well over 100 available for download, said Jacob Parcell, manager of mobile applications at GSA.

These apps offer a wide range of services, from the National Archives' app DocsTeach that offers classroom activities for teachers, to the SaferBus app from the Department of Transportation that allows users to view a bus company's performance record. GSA showcased some of these apps at last week's FOSE Conference in Washington.

"I think the key for agencies is sticking with their mission instead of figuring out how the mobile user would use their information and what are the best formats," Parcell said.

The trend in recent years has been more collaboration on mobile apps both across departments within agencies and across agencies in the government, he said. GSA hosts a wiki on best practices for developing mobile apps.

Agencies are "noticing the mobile citizen is more and more prevalent in the world and in the United States," Parcell said.

Tapping into a mobile user market

IRS2Go helps taxpayers get tips and their refund status.

"To be honest, we thought it would be something cool. We weren't sure if there would be a market," said Mike Silvia, director of the Portal Business Management Division at IRS.

It turns out, there was a market for mobile tax information. The app has been downloaded more than 400,000 times, and taxpayers have used the app for nearly 1 million transactions this year, Silvia said.

IRS now wants to develop different versions of the app — such as one for tax professionals and versions in different languages, he said.

The app requires the user to input their social security number, filing status and refund amount. The team of three who developed the app were able to compare data used for other apps and show that more people were using mobile apps for more "transactional" uses, said Beth Krappweis, usability specialist with IRS.

Niche app on the cheap

Neither of the two employees who developed the Release Mako app at the National Marine Fisheries Service are computer programmers.

"We just know enough to be dangerous," said Peter Cooper, a fishery management specialist with the agency.

Cooper and his colleague George Silva, an economist, wanted to find a way to help stop the overfishing of the North Atlantic shortfin mako shark. They came up with the idea of a "brag board" where fishermen could post online where they caught and released a mako shark.

This "brag board" already existed on the agency's website. Silva used Google App Inventor to create the mobile version of the website, using Google Maps as the centerpiece of the app. Now fishermen at sea can immediately type in information about the shark into their smartphones — without having to write down the information and then go online later to report the information.

The app takes advantage of GPS technology, as well as email queuing — useful if a fisherman is outside of cell service. Fishermen can also upload photos of the shark they have released.

Silva said it took him about two weeks to develop the app, but it took about two months to get agency approval to release the app. The app was one of the first for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the first one for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of NOAA.

"We were basically blazing the trail to determine how an app would go through the process of questions of IT security, questions of does it need legal clearance, are there liabilities associated with it, how do we get an account with the Google [Apps] Marketplace," Silva said

The app went live last summer before the heavy fishing season. Since then, it has been downloaded about 600 times.

Developing the app cost virtually nothing to the agency — aside from the $25 processing fee for Google's Apps Marketplace.

"We have a very niche app, so we really couldn't spend an enormous amount of money developing it," Silva said. "Using a rapid development tool like [Google's] App Inventor was critical in getting a niche product like this out the door."

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