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Mobile apps are reshaping government services and operations

Federal agencies so far have launched about 75 mobile apps aimed at everything from allowing citizens to more easily browse proposed legislation to helping anglers alert their peers when they've just released a short fin mako shark.

Many of the biggest innovations in the government apps sphere, though, are happening at the state level.

About a year ago, Arkansas released the first state mobile app that allows families and friends of prison inmates to make secure payments into the inmates' accounts. That was the first government app anywhere in the country that allows users to make secure payments.

Now, 28 of the state's 68 counties allow residents to pay their property taxes through mobile devices.

Arkansas began focusing much of its development energy on mobile apps when it realized that many of its poorer residents were saving money by using smartphones as both their primary phone and their primary access point to the Internet, said Phil Billingsley, general manager of the Information Network of Arkansas, a public-private partnership that runs many of the state's technology-driven citizen services.

"If you've only got so much disposable income, people are going to make an effort to put that toward a smartphone in a lot of cases," Billingsley said, "and that becomes their lifeline."

Arkansas is the second most impoverished state in the nation, according to some census data. The largest proportions of smartphone users who use their phone as their primary Internet access device make less than $30,000 annually, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

More Arkansans now make deposits into family members' inmate accounts with their mobile phones than with any other deposit option, including an automated phone system, Billingsley said.

The state also developed an app for hunters to register deer and turkeys they killed in 2009.

With information about deer kills coming in on an instantaneous and machine-readable basis, officials from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission are able to make better and faster decisions about how to manage the state's deer populations, Billingsley said.

"Previously, they were driving all over the state and gathering game check cards from these mom-and-pop shops along the trail and then entering them into a database," he said. "About three months later you'd get usable data. At first we were a little leery because we didn't want to put the mom-and-pop shops out of business, but it turned out the guys went there anyway to have a drink and a bite to eat and brag about their kills."

The Information Network of Arkansas' parent company is NIC, which runs similar tech service partnerships in 24 states. Most of the partnerships are funded through a few fee-for-service enterprises, such as online license renewals, and the company directs some of the profits from those services to development projects that don't bring in revenue, NIC's eGovernment Innovation Director Nolan Jones said.

Most of the NIC divisions that have built state government apps have focused on software programs that transmit information or services from government to citizens and back, Nolan said. But a few state governments have begun working on apps to be used solely by government employees, he said.

Indiana for instance, has built an app that allows school bus inspectors to fill out inspection forms on their BlackBerrys and transmit them back to the office along with a scanned bar code to identify the bus and photos of any problems, he said.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which isn't a NIC member, has produced a series of apps, including the LakeFinder app, which gives smartphone-savvy outdoorspeople regularly updated information about lake depth, vegetation reports, and water quality and clarity.

Another Minnesota DNR app mashes smartphones' geo-location capabilities with agency data to point boaters out in the middle of one of the state's 11,482 lakes toward the nearest accessible boat landing.

"One of the real attractive parts of mobile is that you can have a computer with you in the outdoors," said Steve Lime, DNR's data and applications manager. "The DNR's got all this marketing focused around getting people into the outdoors to experience this and that. Now we can provide information to them on a device that doesn't tether them to a desk, so it's a match made in heaven."

In the future, Lime's office is looking at using mobile apps to crowd source reports about invasive species, washed-out state park trails and other things, he said. Those services likely will be tacked onto an existing app that's already being downloaded by outdoor enthusiasts, he said.

The department also is looking at ways to make its data easily accessible in a machine-readable form, Lime said, so private developers can use the data to build their own marketable apps.

The move to mobile hasn't been uniform. Florida just released its first state mobile app in March while New York City has already launched a bevy of useful apps.

Utah's NIC division rolled out a few native apps when the craze first began, Utah Interactive marketing director Sara Watts said, including a look-up service for professional licenses. Native apps are downloaded from a smartphone's app store and live inside the phone rather than on the Web.

The state quickly shifted, though, to focusing on mobile-enabled websites, sites that reside on the Internet but are designed for easy reading on smartphones and tablets.

"We found the [native apps] didn't find large audiences," Watts said, "because the nature of most government transactions is you do them once a year. We also found it's really hard to maintain them because you're also doing online services so you can't focus all your time on apps."

Now, Utah Interactive is building a mobile-enabled version of every new service it rolls out, she said, and has begun the process of creating mobile-enabled versions of existing services.

About 10 percent of the people who visit the state government's website, Utah.gov, are doing it on a mobile device now, she said. That's about a 400 percent increase from 2009, she said.

The agency's only recent foray into native apps is a driver's license practice test for teenagers.

"We'll do [native apps] again if we find something that really lends itself to being a mobile app," Watts said. "But now we're being very choosy. The driver's license exam really lends itself to being an offline app because it's something you can download, take with you and practice all the time and then delete it when you're done. It's nothing that's going to change rapidly."

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