Federal information technology workers now designing government mobile apps should learn from the experience of their 1990s counterparts who developed the first round of federal websites, the director of the Mobile Govproject told Nextgov recently.
"We didn't know in the '90s how important websites were going to be as communication tools," said project director Gwynne Kostin, who's director of the General Services Administration's Mobile Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.
The result was a spirited but largely unfocused rush to the Web that played out differently in every agency and left a messy trail of about 20,000 federal websites that the government is just now beginning to clean up.
Mobile Gov is an interagency group charged with culling best practices for agencies as they begin developing mobile apps. The group hopes to leverage the government's website experience to make the mobile transition more orderly.
"We want to make sure that we're letting this develop in an organic way by putting a focus on strategy and making sure that we're talking about mission and that we're talking about audience," Kostin said.
A few weeks into the project, Kostin and her colleagues have pulled out a few markers, she said.
First, unlike some people who browse the Web, mobile app users, by and large, are looking to complete a task rather than to gather information and expect an app to help them get there.
With the IRS2go app, for instance, users can check the status of their tax refunds. With the My TSA app, users can check whether their flight is delayed and whether anything they're carrying might cause trouble at security.
"People don't ask those questions until they're packing their bags," Kostin said, and people always have phones with them. So, they can just bring up the application and say, 'Can I carry on the fruitcake or do I have to check it?' "
Sometimes the task an app performs can simply be taking up some downtime while the user's commuting or waiting for an appointment, Kostin said. The National Archives' Today's Doc app, for instance, shows users a document from the Archives' collection that originated on that calendar day.
Government apps should also match an agency's mission in some fundamental way, she said, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Mobile Tips and Alerts app, which offers health advisories based on the user's age, gender and location.
About 70 mobile apps have been rolled out so far, according to the federal website USA.gov. Developing those apps can cost as little as about $50,000 for a simple app that doesn't include much new data -- such as the Agriculture Department's Ask Karen app, which covers food safety and is essentially transferred from a similar Web-based service -- to $250,000 or more for a complicated app with substantially new data sets and engineering, Kostin said.
The relatively low starting price should give agencies room to experiment with new apps without the pressure of a major investment, she said.
The Ask Karen app was taking about 10 percent of the roughly 21,000 food safety questions Ask Karen was fielding each week, less than a month after it was launched, according to Kim Taylor, director of Web services at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, who worked on the project.
Kostin defended some mobile apps that don't perform a vital service for citizens, such as the Social Security Administration's Baby Name Playroom app, which uses Social Security data to help expecting parents research baby names.
Although, the site doesn't perform a crucial function, it does serve the agency's mission by reminding parents to register their children for Social Security Numbers, Kostin said, and government apps can't ignore the fact that they're competing for a user's attention.
"I sometimes joke around and say, if an app is released in the app store and no one knows, does it make a sound?" Kostin said. "Part of this is about making those sounds."
Many useful apps that grow out of government information won't be built by the government itself but by private sector entrepreneurs using data sets culled from Data.gov, Kostin added. That point has long been stressed by outgoing federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who has called Data.gov a treasure-trove for app developers with "billion-dollar ideas."
Kostin said she's not especially worried at this point about government apps unfairly competing with the private sector because if there's a strong market incentive to create an app it's unlikely the government would invest as much in it as competing companies.
One major unknown for government app designers is how many people will be using mobile phones as their primary way of accessing the Internet two, five or 10 years down the road. A recentstudyby the Pew Internet and American Life Project, for example, puts that share of adult Americans at nearly 10 percent, a percentage that's sure to grow as more smartphone-savvy high schoolers reach adulthood.
At some point, government may rethink whether it makes sense to stress the on-the-go nature of mobile apps if that's how people are interacting with an agency whether they're on the go or not.
In the meantime, Kostin said, it's important not to get boxed into thinking of mobile simply in terms of stand-alone apps, but also as text alerts and mobile-enabled webpages, which adjust text and graphics to fit a smartphone's smaller screen.