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Government Charts a Mobile Course

July 2012
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine
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The explosion of different devices is forcing agility in platform-agnostic applications.

Federal officials are confronting a burgeoning expansion of mobile platforms as they strive to deliver information efficiently. Public demand for mobile delivery continues to grow, and so do the types of devices that must be served, providing the latest challenge for government leadership.

Part of the response to that challenge can be found in the Digital Government Strategy, unveiled by the White House in late May. The strategy includes mandates for all federal agencies to adapt their online resources to reflect the growing use of mobile computing devices in both the public and private sectors. The strategy is an executive order providing policy guidance to all federal agencies in the management of government computing resources.

At one time, government mobile computing involved delivering information to a BlackBerry smartphone, which made email available away from the desk. The BlackBerry remains the most deployed smartphone in the federal government; however, technology is changing. Apple iPhones and iPads, along with a host of smartphones and tablets running Google’s Android operating system, are placing more pressure on government mobile app developers to meet the multiplatform demand.

The strategy mandates that all agencies take steps to release government data using application programming interfaces (APIs), software that enables advanced website capabilities. The software handles a wide variety of Web management tasks, which might include two different Web servers communicating with each other, as well as the ability of those servers to readily exchange data. This, in turn, is expected to make it easier for agencies to deliver information to citizens using both desktop and mobile computing platforms.

The strategy also calls for improvements in the secure delivery of government data to all platforms. Finally, it calls for a freeze on new .gov websites, as well as possible consolidation of redundant government sites.

A key to the implementation of the strategy is the creation of a Digital Services Advisory Group within the Office of Management and Budget. The strategy also mandates the creation of a new Digital Services Innovation Center (DSIC) within the General Services Administration (GSA).

The DSIC will build on work that has been ongoing in the GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies (OCSIT). For the past five years, the OCSIT has been helping agencies across the federal government develop both mobile apps and strategies. These strategies involve leveraging the apps to deliver services to citizens, and it is the focus of the agency’s efforts to lead other departments in integrating mobile and Web digital resources into their information technology strategies (SIGNAL Magazine, November 2011, page 43).

Gwynne Kostin, the director of the DSIC, will oversee the new GSA unit. For the past two years, she has been the OSCIT’s director of mobile overseeing GSA efforts to work with other agencies.

In recent years, the push among federal agencies has been to develop mobile apps that would work on Apple mobile devices using the iOS operating system. Kostin observes that in the past two years, app developers have had to expand their efforts. Currently, Web developers have had to circumvent limitations in current technology to deliver content to Web-enabled smartphones (See box).

In addition, developers at Microsoft are completing work on Windows 8, an operating system designed not only for desktop PCs but also for smartphones and tablets. Windows 8 is expected to include improved touchscreen capabilities, including the ability to launch and operate apps with a finger swipe, just as iOS users now experience. Mobile devices running Windows 8 are expected to be on the market in the fourth quarter of 2012.

“In the past few months, we’ve seen agencies trying to determine how they’re going to deliver anytime, anywhere, any device, information and services to the public,” Kostin says.

The challenge facing agencies, she explains, is whether to program an app for each different mobile operating system platform or to look for a more effective solution that will be less costly. This especially is important at a time when government agencies are under pressure to contain spending.

 
The solution may lie in HTML 5, the latest revision of the hypertext markup language that is the basic underlying computer code for every website and document on the Web. Still under development but in beta testing on some Web sites, HTML 5 is designed to resolve numerous conflicts that have arisen in recent years with the increase in popularity of multimedia presentations on the Web, such as audio and video.

In addition, one of the most highly anticipated features of HTML 5 is that, for the first time, the new standard will allow website developers to enable sites to reach out. The sites instantly will be able to determine what kind of device is requesting data—smartphone, tablet or PC—and provide the information requested in a design optimized for that device.

“People are looking at HTML 5 very closely and very hopefully,” Kostin says.  “The idea is that you’re able to write once, and it will render appropriately on a number of different devices. That will be a good option for a lot of agencies for a lot of applications.”

However, HTML 5 is not a silver bullet that will resolve all challenges inherent in creating mobile apps for multiple and incompatible platforms, Kostin warns. “Depending on what your app is trying to accomplish, HTML 5 can work out really well, especially if you are not using many of the native elements of the phone.”

If an app requires the use of the device’s camera, its Global Positioning System, or the accelerometer—which senses the phone’s relative position and changes the display accordingly—users must know that HTML 5 does not yet take advantage of those features, Kostin reports. App designers are still working to understand how to make websites fully optimized for HTML 5 and to deliver the same kind of experience that users now find with current-generation apps written for specific platforms.

Some federal agencies simply may take a shortcut and make their present websites fully mobile, which Kostin says would work against an underlying principle in how people use mobile apps and devices.

“Mobile is always contextual,” she says. “It’s always where I am and what I’m trying to do at that moment.” When a person is under a time constraint and is looking for something very specific to a situation, that user does not need an entire full-blown website, Kostin suggests. For agencies considering their very first mobile app or thinking of revamping an existing app, Kostin says that one of the first things to consider is the content layer of a website.

“What is the information that agencies are making available, and how do you make it available in a device-agnostic way,” Kostin posits. One agency that already has redesigned its website in advance of the strategy’s API mandate is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the primary government agency responsible for regulating telecommunications in the United States. Within the last year, the FCC has relaunched its website, which Kostin says is built around a datastream and an API.

She explains that the new API-based site allows the FCC to present large tables of technical data and information governing the operation of broadcast stations and telecommunications systems in a useful format for end users—usually technical engineers. In addition, she says this same format also allows FCC Web users to retrieve that same information in raw, machine-readable form and use it in their own local databases and equipment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has optimized its website. For many years, the CDC has allowed partner health organizations at the state and local level to repurpose important public health information found on its website as part of the effort to ensure the widest possible dissemination. Recently, according to Kostin, the CDC has taken some of the most critical and timely content and created API-based datastreams, making it easier for partner agencies to display and update their sites with CDC information.

As a bonus, Kostin says, “The CDC was able to create an iPad app using that same datastream.” This app dramatically expands field use of the data and leverages the superior wireless mobile connectivity of the Apple tablet device. The FCC and CDC stories reflect a shift from developing apps for specific devices, “now making the information and content mobile, and able to be delivered on any device, at any time,” Kostin concludes.

Across the government, cybersecurity is a top concern for agency chief information officers who primarily are responsible for mobile applications used by staff members to do their jobs (See page 47). Significant differences remain when it comes to securing what Kostin describes as a public-facing website and the mobile apps that go along with that site. For example,  she says, it is important for sites to take steps to protect the end users.

“We need to make sure that the applications and the tools that we are providing to the public are not leaving them open and vulnerable,” Kostin explains. It is important to make sure that the app does not leave a security hole that would allow a hacker to access and compromise the device, its data or its operating system.

Another important consideration for the mobile app designer revolves around privacy and identity management. “If people are sharing information with us, we have to make sure that we’re protecting it,” Kostin says. It also is important to design the app to gather only the information needed to satisfy the mobile user’s request.

She adds that the biggest challenge to determining effective policies governing security for mobile apps and devices is the rapidly changing nature of the underlying technology that makes mobile computing possible.

WEB RESOURCES
Federal Digital Government Strategy: http://1.usa.gov/Loy3dT
GSA Making Government Mobile: www.howto.gov/tech-solutions/mobile
GSA Mobile Apps Gallery: http://apps.usa.gov/
GSA Mobile Gov Community of Practice: www.howto.gov/communities/mobilegov