The best mobile apps: Simple, easy to use, ready to reuse

A word of advice to government agencies developing mobile applications: Keep them simple and easy to use.

That was the word from federal and state technology officers at a gathering at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ Mid-Year Conference May 10 in Baltimore.

California, for example, is developing a mobile applications store, California Mobile Galleria, which is “organized by the way people live,” said Carlos Ramos, the state’s chief information officer. Citizen demand drives how California develops mobile applications, he said, noting that 53 percent of traffic on California government websites is from mobile devices.


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Applications on the California app store range from boating information and fire activity to fuel prices by geographic area and the locations of smog testing centers. The state requires residents to have their cars tested for smog prior to selling them. Residents can get smog history of a car by its license plate, Ramos noted.

California provides state agencies, industry and other states with a template, the California Mobile Template version 3.0, which enables developers to create device-neutral applications.

Keep it simple, make many and recycle is the mantra for Delaware’s mobile app development strategy, said Greg Hughes, director of the Delaware Government Center.

Delaware has developed a generic, location-based mobile application platform where code from one application can be leveraged or reused for other applications. To do that, Delaware chose to buy an Android application and Apple’s iPhone iOS operating system, and reuse them over and over again, Hughes said.

Because developers know the audience for whom they are making applications, they can be very specific about the user experience, Hughes said. State agencies are able to supply data via spreadsheets into XML-based feeds, and whenever the information changes on the spreadsheet, it is reflected in the mobile application. For instance, state farmers markets might have fruits and vegetables in the summer, pumpkins in the fall and Christmas trees in the winter, and that can be reflected in the mobile applications, he said.

Delaware is trying to push down the management of data to the people who own the data, which will make mobile apps better, Hughes said. The challenge is to find out who owns the various data, he added.

The Recovery Accountability & Transparency Board provides developers with a central location, the Developer Center, where they can develop widgets, data application programming interfaces and mobile applications for the transparency and accountability community, said Michael Wood, executive director of the Recovery Board.

Wood said the Recovery Board is developing a geographic information system-based, mobile application that will collect information on grants to states, where the public can actually pinpoint on a Google-type map where work is being done, he said.

Agencies must make sure they know their audiences and shouldn’t try to put everything into their mobile apps, said Marc Burris, CIO of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, which has built a voter lookup application for poll workers.

North Carolina uses MobileDataNow open-source software, which allows workers throughout the state’s 2,750 polling stations — many of them in rural counties — to query databases from their phones by sending an e-mail or simple text message. MobileDataNow receives the message, queries the database with the request, formats the response and sends back an answer instantly.

The move to mobile applications is helping agencies improve the quality of their websites, said Neil Bonner, program manager with the Homeland Security Department’s Transportation Security Administration.

TSA is launching a new, mobile-friendly website in the fall, said Bonner, who described the agency’s efforts to provide more information via mobile apps about airline security procedures and what can be carried on flights for passengers.

Rather than putting everything out on a website as agencies tended to do several years ago, sites are more tightly focused with the content people are actually looking for, Bonner said.

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