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All About Apps

Michael Morgenstern

Many in government consider the phrase killer apps to be an oxymoron. Federal software typically comes with an extensive list of requirements and takes years to write. By the time applications reach the end user, the technology often is old news. That's why White House officials have spent the past year emphasizing that government must become more nimble and creative in its development approach.

The effort has started to pay off. While it still is relatively rare to find federally developed applications so valuable or desirable that users adopt them quickly and organically, there are pockets of innovation. One example is NASA's Be a Martian Web site, a cloud computing effort that lets the public view hundreds of thousands of images from the Red Planet. In the fiscal 2011 budget released on Feb. 1, President Obama noted that the administration will continue to roll out less intensive and less expensive cloud computing technologies, making it easier and more practical to store large amounts of data online in a public-facing server.

The Be a Martian site also takes advantage of crowd-sourcing--or using the collective talent of the public to complete a project--by allowing visitors to count craters and other formations on Mars' surface. The results help NASA map the planet.

If there's any thread connecting the various killer applications within government, it's that most of the activity is taking place on the Web and with the public in mind. The Homeland Security, State and Veterans Affairs departments have revamped their online offerings and unveiled redesigned sites to considerable fanfare. The enhancements don't only make the sites look better; they also aim to provide easier navigation and tools that deliver more useful--and sometimes customized--information to visitors. Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau, for example, gives applicants for residency and citizenship of processing times for myriad forms and allows them to track the progress of their cases.

Many of the functionalities that previously required downloading software now are accessible from agencies with just a few mouse clicks. While these Web-native programs might not fit the traditional definition of killer apps, they represent the current trend in both the government and private sector toward housing tools on the Web or in the cloud so users can access them from any computer or mobile device.

Another online effort that has drawn attention is the Federal Communications Commission's Reboot.FCC.gov, which debuted on Jan. 7. The site features a blog, discussion forum and clearinghouse for online data. Clay Johnson, director of the nonprofit Sunlight Labs, says FCC has been particularly interested in working with the open government community to advance transparency and make more data available online.

"FCC Reboot is a good example of an agency leading the way on how to talk to developers and constituents," Johnson says. "It's not going to create applications right now, but they are creating a dialogue . . . that's going to pay off in the long run."

Private sector companies already have proved adept at finding innovative uses for government data. Sunlight Labs' 2009 Apps for America contest, which challenged developers to build software using a feed from the online clearinghouse of federal information Data.gov, drew more than 40 entries. The winning application, Forum One Communication's DataMasher, allows citizens to combine any two sets of statistics from Data.gov to examine possible correlations. Other entries help citizens locate toxic waste dumps on their iPhones; play a memory game with faces from the FBI's Most Wanted list; and surf the Federal Register, the daily publication of the government's regulatory actions.

Interest in such applications is likely to grow as agencies post more information online in keeping with the Obama administration's December 2009 open government directive, Johnson predicts. Going forward, the best formula to meet the demand for more killer applications might be to reform the cumbersome federal procurement process and enlist more help from the private sector.

"Really what has to happen is the process for developing and procuring software has to change," Johnson says. "It means changing the procurement process to make smaller teams that are more user-driven rather than giant contractors that are using the same processes to build Web software as to build a plane."

Johnson suggested a legislative solution ultimately would be needed to move from big-bang development, with its long list of requirements, toward a more nimble approach with multiple rollouts. In the interim, he proposes offering incentives for large contractors to allow smaller, more innovative developers to take part in the process.

"It would be easier for them to open their doors to smaller contractors than to get legislative change," he says.

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