Going mobile? The people are already there.

Agencies serious about connecting with the public have to go where the people are. Increasingly, that means mobile apps.

Claire Bailey was in Washington when she heard about a major traffic calamity on the main highways around the Arkansas capital of Little Rock. As the state’s director of the Department of Information Resources, she wanted to know about it. She also had plenty of connections and access to a lot of information. So where did she find the best information?

On the Facebook page of the local TV news station, where people were posting their locations and describing what was happening — or, in their case,  not happening. Taken together, they provided a good, practically real-time view of the problem.

Bailey told that story during a session at the recent FOSE conference in Washington, as part of a panel on using mobile technology to engage the public.

Her experience underscores the growing importance of mobile apps for agencies serious about connecting with their constituents, something she and Arkansas — like a lot of other states, cities and federal agencies — have taken to heart.

The state has a mobile portal and has developed a variety of apps for iPhones and Android devices. One example is an iPhone app offered by the state’s Game and Fish Commission that provides information for hunters and anglers, lets them report what they catch or kill, and includes social media links, so hunters can report their kills via their mobile device “and post it to Facebook at the same time,” she said. The app has been downloaded about 40,000 times.

Another popular app is a mobile version of YOUniversal, a service through which students can apply for financial aid. Last time around, 12 percent of students entered their applications through the smart-phone version, Bailey said.

The point, to use the phrase Bailey kept repeating in describing the state’s efforts, was to “get the word out,” and the idea is to do so by going where the people are. Increasingly, where they are is not just online, but online via a mobile device.

A recent report by Allot Communications says that mobile data bandwidth use increased by 77 percent in the first half of 2011 alone. Another recent study on the growth of smart phones, by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, found that 25 percent of smart-phone users say their mobile devices are their primary means of accessing the Internet.

So it’s pretty clear that people are going mobile. Quite a few government organizations have been quick to meet the demand, with apps for everything from automated reporting of potholes to first-alert earthquake systems on Twitter. For the rest, it’s time to get on the train.

The potential rock slide at the end of this tunnel is the increasing cost of mobile Internet access, which might eventually drive some people away from mobile access to the Internet, or at least make them more cautious about when they use it. The Allot report noted that 51 percent of providers have done away with unlimited data plans, underscoring a trend that suggests other providers will follow.

That might slow some mobile users down, but it’s not likely to change the landscape entirely. For the foreseeable future, people will still use smart phones to interact on the Web, most likely in increasing numbers. But the larger point is that no matter how people are interacting on the Web, agile agencies will find way to get the word out.

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