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A Primer on Local Government Mobile Apps

If you take a look at current television commercials or tech blogs, you’ll quickly find a great deal of attention focused on smartphones and the mobile applications (apps for short) that are built on top of them. While traditionally focused on the Blackberry-dominated business user niche, smartphones made the shift to the mainstream after Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007. Since that time the industry has experienced intense competition and tremendous growth year over year. While hardware sales have been brisk, the truly interesting part is that there is an ever growing user base for the mobile apps that these phones run. You’ve seen the commercials for apps that can schedule dinner, buy movie tickets, or find your friends. While many of these apps are focused on personal use, there is a growing niche for apps that interface with local governments. These apps have the potential to be a powerful communication tool and may revolutionize the way that governments interact with their citizenry.

The Trend
In 2008, President Obama tasked Federal CIO Vivek Kundra with making the federal government’s data more open and accessible to the public. While this information was always available, it often required significant effort to obtain and was in a format that made it difficult to use. Kundra set about taking datasets from multiple agencies and consolidating them at the newly-commissioned data.gov website in a number of widely used formats. With this move, datasets like population, crime, spending, traffic and others became available for anyone to include in their application. For the first time, government data wasn’t just available, it was usable.

While governments at all levels were opening up their data, the public was going wild over smartphones. What was once a niche market became the fastest growing segment in the mobile phone space. Research firm comScore recently reported that smartphones now comprise 19% of the active phones in the United States, some 45 million in total. In response to this market growth, mobile carriers began offering a wider variety of smartphones and implemented cheap unlimited data plans while increasing the speed and coverage of their networks. Product companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and RIM released free tools that made make it easy for anyone to develop applications on top of their phones and operating systems. They also provide sprawling online stores to make it easy for developers to offer their app to the public. By 2010, Apple reported over 3 billion apps were downloaded on its store alone.

Combine the growing trend to open up government data with the rapid growth in smartphone adoption and you have a recipe for government mobile apps to appear on the scene. Major cities like New York and Los Angeles were quick to jump on board. After making data available they held app contests that rewarded the most creative entries. They then made all of these applications available for their citizens to use. Users could see everything from New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods to up-to-the-minute street parking availability. In the minds of consumers and citizens, this drew a clear line from the vast stores of data that a government collects to its practical use in the ‘real world.’ Let’s take a look at three popular types of local government focused mobile apps.

Citizen Relationship
Management (CRM)

CRM includes many features that are generally lumped under 311 systems like report-a-pothole and other maintenance requests, reporting utility outages, and traffic updates. Most smartphones are equipped with cameras and GPS units that can record the location of the phone. Mobile 311 apps make use of both of these features to greatly improve the data that the city receives from the citizen. For example, a citizen may openup a 311 app on their phone and snap a picture of a pothole. The phone then records the GPS location, known as geotagging, and sends it to the city’s work order system. The road crew then gets a full report including location and a picture without the request ever needing manual attention from city staff. The potential efficiency gains are evident. Mobile 311 apps are typically developed by vendors as add-ons to pre-existing 311 systems and are among the most popular local gov-focused mobile apps, especially in larger cities with massive infrastructures. While still young, the hope is that these systems will decrease response time to reported issues, increase the number of reported issues, and provide a 24/7 solution to 311 that citizens will embrace.

Data Mashups

Data mashups arose out of the app contests held by cities around the country. Once developers had access to the city’s data they could combine it with preexisting applications in surprising new ways. For instance, traffic data could be combined with accident report data and overlaid with Google Maps to give citizens a bird’s eye view of dangerous traffic areas. Thus the term “mash-up” originated, which means “mashing” different data sets together to find something meaningful. Mashups can come in a variety of flavors from reporting areas of dangerous crime, locating open real estate, and showing the best bike routes in the city. The more data a city makes available, the more developers have to work with when designing their apps. Usually mashups are coded by individuals looking to better their immediate community in some way, and both governments and citizens benefit.

Disaster Recovery

Every city dreads a disaster but if one happens the citizens will turn to their local government for help and guidance. Some mobile apps are starting to focus around allowing government to better communicate disaster planning and recovery information to and from their citizens. These apps might warn people about a tornado sighting in their area, provide updated evacuation routes, and allow for citizens to report conditions on the ground to emergency service personnel. Now that most people have mobile phones, these apps allow for anytime, anywhere disaster communication instead of relying on television or radio. Some of these apps will even use social media sites like Twitter or Facebook to automatically update followers as to the status of the disaster. Not only are disaster recovery apps useful, they can help save lives.


Those are just three of the endless possibilities for government focused mobile apps. If your city is exploring this area, think about which datasets you can make available and how to generate interest in them. Remember, the more available your data, the more likely your citizens will come up with something unique and useful for the community. Also talk to your vendors to see if they are implementing mobile apps into their systems. These might help you reduce costs, increase revenue, and improve the level of service you provide to the community. Mobile apps may provide an additional means for governments to get their citizens truly engaged in a cost-effective and fruitful way.

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