A chat with Alex Howard from O’Reilly Media on mobile Gov 2.0

When it comes to reporting on new developments in the Gov 2.0 world, there are few more influential than Alex Howard. Based in Washington D.C., Alex writes for O’Reilly Media on everything from social media to new technology developments. He’s known to many by his Twitter pseudonym, @digiphile. I sat down with him while in the U.S. capital to hear his thoughts surrounding mobile developments…for more information check out my website howappt.com.

What are the benefits of mobile apps to government?

  • The future is mobile but anyone who makes that prediction doesn’t get any points for saying as much in 2011. At the end of 2010, smartphone penetration stood at nearly 30%, with massive projected growth of smartphones over the coming 12 months.
  • The introduction of Android into the market has changed the game… as people with lower income levels can now get a smartphone.
  • The clear benefit of mobile is that you are able to find people where they are…reporting incidents is a underutilized capacity that is becoming more common with initiatives such as Citysourced andSeeClickFix.
  • Government, has not been good creating applications that allow people to push information back. Mobile will go some way to creating a meaningful conversation with citizens.

Should government focus on the mobile web rather than native apps?

  • If you want to serve the greatest number of citizens, you’ll find them via text (SMS) or a mobile site.
  • This is a crucial consideration when in the context of scarce resources. Many parts of the population still can’t afford broadband access, but some 85% of US adults have a cellphone. Mobile sites are a way to send them crucial updates and gather feedback.
  • There are also around 24,000 registered federal .gov domains. Most are not optimized toward mobile and there is now a movement towards consolidation.

You wrote about shiny app syndrome last year do you think thatit’s improved within that time?

  • This is one of the most important areas that I wrote about last year. It keeps coming up.
  • Having an app is still very attractive within popular culture and in the commercial space.
  • Apps are often seen as a signifier of progress without full deliberation of the development costs that are also associated with creating native apps.
  • What platform should you develop for? …Apple and Google are by far the biggest right now. BlackBerry has not executed on a platform strategy to attract developers to date, though they still are the default phone in government and business. The Microsoft/Nokia partnership is one to watch out for in the coming years.

Speaking of Blackberry, how can mobile devices affect Mobile and Flexible working?

  • Due to its integration with email and enterprise systems, Washington DC is a Blackberry town. Over the years, this revolution in communication has also created a culture of constant work.
  • Allowing employees to have access to apps, social media and the Web from government desktops still faces a cultural barriers and security concerns.
  • Right now, there still appears to be more of a focus on face-to-face intereactions than giving people the opportunity to be creative wherever they are. That may be changing with the passage of a recent telework law. There’s still a lingering fear that full Internet access will mean that employees will be too distracted to get their jobs done.
  • I feel strongly about that, as it’s basically a trust issue. This has more to do with people rather than the technology.
  • Knowledge work tends to thrive in a more results-based environment. It’s also an important element to retain talent within government and boost productivity.

How do you see the unique mobile represents security issues for government?

  • There are definitely many people that want to hack government workers. There have been numerous sophisticated attempts to do so in the past. There will be more.
  • Government is a highly regulated industry, although security and privacy concerns are trump cards that often prohibit change.
  • Having said that, the weakest part of any security system is the human element. Many people don’t even put a password on their work mobile phone.
  • Risk needs to be carefully thought through, and contingency plans put in place like the ability to remotely wipe the mobile hardware if the device is lost or hard disk encryption on laptops.
  • That is not to say that you can’t use mobile securely…it’s user behavior that is the primary issue.

What is the best way to engage mobile third party developers Apps Contests, hackathons or other methods?

  • Apps contests are more than just creating the apps themselves, although ideally the apps themselves are useful! Some contest have suffered because of unfocused goals.
  • With these contests, success lies in more than the number of apps…its about the community that you build that will assist entrepreneurs to create jobs, or in the problems they help a city solves.
  • If these contests are going to be useful in the future, they need to be have more citizen centricity and fix specific and unique problems.
  • We are not in the same place that we were years ago with the original apps contest here in the District, Apps for Democracy.
  • Many of the apps haven’t survived online or in people’s phone, but it’s also really good to have failures. The code for the best of them is still around. Experimentation and a tolerance for failure will be critical to how government deals with the challenges of a mobile tomorrow.

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