The 10 best federal mobile apps

You will hear a lot about the appropriate size of government during this election season. But one type of smaller government that all sides can agree on is moving helpful applications, or apps, to mobile devices where they can be used by the public for free at any time and almost any location.

The Obama administration recently ordered all federal agencies to begin making at least two apps as part of its recently unveiled digital government plan, in which it called for “a 21st century platform to better serve the American people.”

Some agencies are ahead of the curve and already have apps in place that are doing just that, with new ones being launched almost every week. GCN spent the last month going over them all to identify and rank the 10 best government apps designed for citizens based on their helpfulness, ease of use and the intangible but all-important coolness factor.

One thing to note is that most government apps today are rather primitive compared to those in the private sector. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re trying to find your embassy in a foreign country in a hurry, you probably don’t want to have to tackle a level of Angry Birds first, especially if there are pursuers on your tail.

The second thing to note about today’s crop of government apps is that almost all of them act as a mobile gateway to information stored in other forms. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part government apps are little more than simple databases right now. It would be great if we could renew our driver’s license, vote in an election and communicate with our elected officials directly from our smart phones, but those remain future goals, at least for now.

A few government apps do push the boundaries, so perhaps the Obama administration’s push will bring about more diverse and innovative offerings in the near future.

For agencies building apps, the biggest challenge seems to be how to cope with the current Wild West of mobile formats. A helpful app for the iPhone doesn’t do much good if a user only owns a BlackBerry. Government has little choice but to create multiple identical apps or risk excluding someone based on their mobile platform. One workaround being increasingly used is making applications available via websites optimized for mobile devices, which should be accessible from any phone or even a PC.

However, having a mobile website is not always as good as an actual application. Although any phone can get to the information, it requires a good Internet connection at the exact moment you need the data, which isn’t always possible.

Plus, every time you go to the website, data gets used, which can affect your personal cell phone bill. An app, by contrast, downloads to your phone one time and then most of its functions and information are right there locally from that point on, even if you happen to find yourself in a dead zone between cell towers and without a Starbucks or a McDonald’s hot spot in sight.

Apps were reviewed on every available platform to ensure a homogeneous look across different devices. And for the most part, functionality regardless of platform is one area where they all shined. The following are GCN's picks for the best in government apps at the moment. And you can bet they will soon be joined by many others.


Platforms: iOS, Android
Usefulness: 4
Ease of Use: 8
Coolness Factor: 10

NASA was one of the first agencies to get a high-performance app online for everyone to download for free. The agency always seem to be ahead of the curve in terms of public outreach, and this one has been available since 2010. And it’s a beautiful app, with high-definition pictures of space coming right to your phone. NASA has the universe to work with, and it shows. The pictures that came into our new iPad test unit with its fancy screen were, in a word, breathtaking. And the Android version of the program displayed the wonders of space quite well, too.

The app is a little more complex than most of the others in our list because you can customize exactly the type of news you want to get from ongoing missions, NASA press releases, or just lots of pretty pictures. The information isn’t really useful per se, at least in terms of citizens accessing government services. But it is really cool, and if you happen to have a kid doing a report on space, it will save you a lot of trips to the library.

Ask Karen

Platforms: Mobile Web, iOS, Android
Usefulness: 10
Ease of Use: 10
Coolness Factor: 10

Recently launched by the Agriculture Department, Ask Karen is a perfect example of how to make a fun application that provides a lot of great information. You can ask Karen, the friendly food safety icon expert, all sorts of questions such as “How long can food last in a power failure,” or  “How can I tell if a restaurant has adequately cooked my fish?” or even “How can you tell which cantaloupes are fresh in the store?” and the app will return helpful information.

Available as a stand-alone app on both the iOS and Android platform as well as a mobile-friendly website, this program sports a truly revolutionary feature: live help from a real person. Weekdays between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., a food safety expert is on hand to answer any questions you might have about food. It no doubt takes a lot of effort by the USDA to have someone monitor the app’s users, but food poisoning can make people very sick or even kill them, so the level of commitment is equal to the seriousness of the threat. It’s an app that nobody should be without.

All of the apps that made the list here are helpful. Reviews of runners-up could probably fill four more pages. But of all the ones reviewed here, Ask Karen gets the prize for being the best of the bunch.

NEXT: National Cancer Institute Mobile

National Cancer Institute Mobile

Platforms: Mobile Web, iOS, Android, Blackberry
Usefulness: 10
Ease of Use: 10
Coolness Factor: 6

The NCI mobile app is a detailed dictionary of cancer terms, topics and constantly updated research news. It will even give users helpful advice about what to ask their doctor in the event of a cancer diagnosis, and suggest new treatment plans that your general practitioner may not yet be aware of.

It’s probably one of the simplest apps in the bunch, and the best way to access it is to simply go to the mobile Web page from any mobile device or PC. I entered some pretty complex cancer terms into the search option and was amazed at how nuanced and up to date it was.

Just launched in June, this tool is a helpful one I wish had been available when my late father was battling cancer. It might have made us better prepared for the pitfalls along the way. Cancer seems to touch everyone in some way, and it’s nice to have this app as a starting point if it’s ever needed. It well deserves a usefulness rating of 10.

Veterans Affairs Mobile

Platforms: Mobile Web
Usefulness: 8
Ease of Use: 6
Coolness Factor: 8

The Veterans Affairs Department and all its facilities are impressive, but they are also large and complicated. The Veterans Affairs Mobile app, which is available on a mobile website, can help you make sense of it all. Probably the most useful part of the application is a searchable database of VA facilities by state, but you can also get information about how to claim veterans benefits. And there is a suicide prevention area that could be useful for people seeking help, or for their friends and family to look for warning signs. There is also a gravesite locater that works with any VA cemetery, making it an all-around good tool for veterans and their families. A separate app from the VA to help combat post-traumatic stress disorder is also noteworthy. Called the PTSD Coach, it runs on iOS and Android devices. It’s a great app and is highly recommended.

USA Jobs

Platforms: iOS
Usefulness: 9
Ease of Use: 8
Coolness Factor: 7

The economy seems to be crawling back out of its hole, but there are still a lot of people looking for work. The USA Jobs app for iOS is an attempt by the Office of Personnel Management to steer those people toward government job opportunities. And looking at the listings, there are quite a few of them.

This is one of the older apps in our list, launching in 2010, but it’s a good one with a clean, almost elegant interface. One button takes you to a general jobs listing area, while another lets you tailor your search to a specific agency or field and set up alerts for when new positions become available. You can even get your resume on file and keep track of which jobs you’ve applied for, right from your phone. Working for the government has always been desirable, and this little app certainly would be an advantage to any job seeker.

NEXT: Science.gov Mobile

Science.gov Mobile

Platforms: Android, Mobile Web
Usefulness: 7
Ease of Use: 8
Coolness Factor: 8

Another newcomer, the Science.gov Mobile App, comes from the Energy Department and is available as a stand-alone program running on Android devices or via a mobile website.

Billed as a tool to help kids with homework, it’s actually a surprisingly powerful search engine that checks science data from 12 federal agencies going back to 1990. So if you have a science-related question, there is a good chance that someone in government has asked the same thing at some point, and probably commissioned a study to get the answer.

Having access to all that data is a lot better than having it sit unused in some dusty file cabinet. It could probably even be a boon to researchers to keep them from duplicating research, and it will certainly help your kids get an A on their science papers.


Platforms: Android, Mobile Web, iPhone
Usefulness: 7
Ease of Use: 7
Coolness Factor: 7

Can I bring my cough syrup on an airplane? Are thunderstorms affecting travel times at the airport where I need to transfer? Is there a long wait to get screened through security? These and other travel-related questions are available as an app on your Android device, or through a mobile website from just about any smart phone.

The app puts a lot of frequently needed data at the top level, such as airport delays updated in real time, so you can find out at a glance if things are running smoothly. You can also drill down into other information, such as how long security lines are at different airports.

Information about what you can and cannot bring onto an airplane has its own area, driven by an expert system that poses gradually more specific questions about a queried item until it provides the appropriate guidelines for it. And there is a frequently asked question list that, among other things, provides details about TSA’s new advanced imaging technology.

The My TSA app is pretty helpful, and I plan to have it with me before my next trip.

Court Plus

Platforms: Mobile Web
Usefulness: 8
Ease of Use: 6
Coolness Factor: 8

Just to prove that it’s not only the feds who are designing great apps, we included one of the most noteworthy state-sponsored apps in our list of great ways government is keeping its citizens in the loop. Court Plus is sponsored by the Charleston Clerk of the Court of South Carolina and is available as a mobile website. You can access the app via any platform.

The site is free to use, but you have to create a user name and password first. Then you can search for court records by case number, party name or the number of a South Carolina Bar member who is working on the trial. Scanned documents entered in as evidence are also available unless the evidence is sealed.

While this application is only really useful to those in Charleston, it could serve as a perfect road map to bring this type of information to the public from other cities and states, or even as a way to navigate the labyrinth that is the federal court system.

NEXT: NIH's life-saving WISER

WISER Wireless Information For Emergency Responders


Platforms: Blackberry, iOS, Android
Usefulness: 9
Ease of Use: 5
Coolness Factor: 9

Not many apps can actually save a life, but the National Institutes of Health’s Wireless Information For Emergency Responders, or WISER, could do just that, and may have already done so since it was released last year. Tested on the BlackBerry OS, it’s also available for the Apple iOS and the Android platform.

Although a bit more difficult to use than most apps, WISER is really designed for hazmat teams and other first responders who would presumably take the time to become proficient with it before using it in the field. The app is a searchable application with information about such topics as how to safely handle and dispose of radioactive Cesium, or what symptoms to look for when determining whether people have been exposed to a certain toxin. It also includes access to the Hazardous Substances Databank maintained by the National Library of Medicine.

There is a lot of information that can be found, which might explain the somewhat difficult interface. However, in terms of usefulness, you can’t get too much higher if you happen to be a first responder. The general public can probably find less detailed apps that explain things like first aid a bit better, but for first responders, clear a space in the tool belt for this one.

FBI’s Most Wanted

Platforms: iOS
Usefulness: 6
Ease of Use: 5
Coolness Factor: 7

The FBI’s Most Wanted app on the iPhone lets users see the 10 most wanted fugitives in the country, get information about missing children, see wanted alerts by state and even submit tips to the FBI.

The app has had its share of problems lately, with users on the Apple forums complaining about photos not working and text going missing. However, the most recent Version 1.56 update seems to have cleared up a lot of those problems. We were able to consistently use it without any crashes, although we didn’t catch any fugitives. The likelihood that using this app will actually help catch one of the most wanted is very low, of course, but better to have it handy just in case. And the ability to submit tips about anything directly to the FBI is a useful extra feature.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/Shutterstock.com)

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected