Canadian Government & the Mobile Space in 2012

Back in early 2011, I created a collaborative Google Spreadsheet (available at to compile a list of Canadian government organizations (federal, provincial , municipal +crown/agency) that have created mobile websites and/or mobile apps. As a supplement to that spreadsheet I also created a visual presentation with screenshots of each entry, which I try to update every 12 months and have embedded below.

Why did I do this?

We are at a crossroads. Smartphones have irreversibly changed people’s mobile habits and how marketers interact with them. While the changes may first be happening on the consumer side, the evolving expectations in terms of government service delivery are quickly becoming evident as people become used to the ease of use and increased efficiency provided by mobile devices.

Key definitions

Let’s take a look at some definitions in this rapidly evolving space. I find there is still a significant knowledge gap when it comes to mobile, often due to misunderstandings of various terms.

  • Mobile phone (also known as a cellular phone, cell phone and a hand phone): A device that can make and receive telephone calls over a radio link whilst moving around a wide geographic area. It does so by connecting to a cellular network provided by a mobile phone operator, allowing access to the public telephone network.
  • Feature phone: A mobile phone which at the time of manufacture is not considered to be a smartphone, but nevertheless has additional functions over and above standard mobile services. It is intended for customers who want a lower-price phone without all the features of a smartphone.
  • Smartphone: A mobile phone built on a mobile computing platform, with more advanced computing ability and connectivity than a feature phone. Usually at minimum features a GPS, camera, high-speed internet access and the ability to download mobile applications.
As a personal side note, I think the term “phone” in smartphone is extremely misleading and should be dropped. Phones are devices that are made primarily to make and receive voice calls, but the vast majority of smartphone users primarily use them for text messaging, taking photos, watching video, using apps, browsing the internet and emailing. I prefer to call smartphones “mini-tablets” or “mini-tablet PC’s” that happen to have voice-calling capability. This is where the majority of the misunderstandings occur. Folks, these are computers not phones! People have more powerful devices in their pockets than the entire computer system on board the first shuttle mission to the moon!
  • Mobile app (increasingly referred to as a native mobile app): A software application designed to run on smartphones, tablet computers and other mobile devices. They are available through application distribution platforms, which are typically operated by the owner of the mobile operating system, such as the Apple App Store, Google Play, Windows Phone Marketplace and BlackBerry App World. Some apps are free, while others have a price.
  • Mobile website: A website built on the world-wide-web, but specifically designed for smaller mobile screens. It can be accessed using the provided internet browser on your mobile device without the need for downloading any native applications.

When it comes to deciding whether to build a native app or a mobile website, the most appropriate choice really depends on your end goals. If you are developing an interactive game an app is probably going to be your best option. But if your goal is to offer mobile-friendly content to the widest possible audience then a mobile website is probably the way to go. In some cases you may decide you need both a mobile website and a mobile app, but it’s pretty safe to say that it rarely makes sense to build an app without already having a mobile website in place (a mistake I keep seeing made in government). It should be noted that the distinction between mobile websites and native applications is anticipated to become increasingly blurred, as mobile browsers gain direct access to the hardware of mobile devices (e.g. accelerometers or GPS), and the speed and abilities of browser-based applications improve. The increased usage of HTML5 is driving this trend. Bottom line: start with a mobile friendly version of your website unless you have a solid business case for an app.

Key statistics

  • In March 2012, eMarketer forecast that 46% of Canadian mobile phones will be smartphones by the end of 2012. That number has already been met.
  • By 2016, that percentage is predicted to rise to 62% *It should be noted that past predictions ended up being extremely conservative
  • In a recent Canadian government eService delivery study from PWC 10% of respondents stated they currently use smartphones to access government services; 32% stated they will do so in the future. *It should be noted that 46% stated they didn’t know where to look (“lack of knowledge” was the exact wording). In many cases, that’s probably a good thing since they often don’t exist or simply are not user and/or mobile friendly to begin with.
  • Top location-based services that interest Canadians include:
    1. Weather conditions
    2. Road construction
    3. Traffic info
    4. Walk-in health clinics
    5. Public transit info
    6. Passport office
  • Globally, less than 1% of websites are mobile friendly even though over 50% of worldwide internet access will occur via a mobile device in 2012.

So what have government organizations in Canada done to date?

Plenty, but still far from enough. The screenshot presentation below will give you a sense of some of the work that has been done by various organizations in response to these hard to ignore trends. Some noteworthy highlights include:
  • Many federal departments have begun their transition into mobile by creating mobile friendly versions of their websites
  • A new standard departmental mobile URL naming convention seems to be evolving (e.g. or
  • Some departments have created targeted, purpose-specific apps as opposed to broad departmental apps (e.g. the “Learn to Camp” app from Parks Canada)
  • Various on-line government communities have been proactive be creating their own unofficial mobile tools (e.g. this mobile version of GEDS)
  • No federal department seems to be taking advantage of the powerhouse smartphone features (i.e. gps for location-based services, cameras for bar-code scanning, etc… ) to engage their audiences. So much potential there!

What’s next?

First of all, I think every government organization should be planning to have a mobile friendly version of its website by 2013. At least something formatted to fit small screens. Yes, that likely means getting rid of 80% of your content from the front page (don’t worry you can still keep your junk on the regular website). In terms of interface you want to focus on having clear calls to action based on the top 20% of actions people actually perform on your regular website (you are tracking this right? you have no excuse in this day in age if not).

In term of apps, there still lies the big debate as to whether it is the responsibility of government to develop these in the first place. The alternate route of course is to focus efforts on the open government movement and on providing open data in order to let private citizen communities develop these instead. After all, citizen apps based on government data (e.g. Apps for Climate Change, or Apps for Democracy) look much nicer, are developed much faster, and are often born out of actual needs as opposed to the shiny object syndrome prevalent in government today. I’m an avid supporter of the open data / citizen route, however let them fill the niche application needs that no government department would ever think of creating. For certain departments (you know who you are) , there are plenty of potential mobile app uses that could directly help with making mandated service delivery more effective and efficient right away. Please don’t say resources are an issue, at least not before taking a good look at how much money you spend on your brochures, posters, cups, stress balls and pens.

As a final plea, please help me keep the spreadsheet up-to-date. Add to it, share it with your colleagues, use it in your presentations, distribute it to your networks and databases. It is meant to help everyone. I will do my part an update the presentation every 12 months as promised.

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