Government, go mobile in 2012. Do it right 7. Of wallets, benefits, chirpy lamps

By Andreas Muno

Commuting and her virtual sister were main topics of our last post. In our last post of this blog series, we shall look at advantages of mobilized money transfers, how mobile technology may help preventing fraud and abuse or just improve efficiency of public benefits systems, and what other public mobile experiences we will get used to in the coming months and years.

What’s in your wallet? What wallet?!

As citizens and businesses increasingly use mobile devices as a substitute or extension of their wallets and cash registers, governments may want to tap this technology for their purposes, too: According to a 2009 FDIC survey an estimated 7.7 percent of U.S. households, approximately 9 million, are unbanked. Minorities more likely to be unbanked include blacks (an estimated 21.7 percent of black households are unbanked), Hispanics (19.3 percent), and American Indian/Alaskans (15.6 percent). In addition to the unbanked households, an estimated 17.9 percent of U.S. households, roughly 21 million are underbanked. As far as some of the un- or underbanked are entitled to government benefit transfers, managing payments to them may be expensive to the government. Making sure the money actually reaches the beneficiary, and can be effectively used by them instead of getting “lost” on the way or stolen at the destination adds another thick layor of expensive administartion. Transferring money to beneficiaries’ mobile wallets may be a way to securely transmit payments to at least some of them, strengthening their ability to securely conduct everyday business, while reducing cost to the government. As mobile payment transfers are very cost effective, issuing small payments more often may help some people manage their money better, increasing the value of the benefits to them. Banks and mobile network providers may in turn benefit from closely collaborating with one another, and with governments in helping this customer group better save and manage their money.

Reduce fraud, waste and abuse of public services

In 2011 Medicaid fees-for-service payments still had an error rate of 8.6%. Mobile device-based requirements to verify proper service to the right beneficiary may help to reduce fraud, waste and abuse: For example, a three-way match of service location, on-site picture of the recipient holding a current newspaper, and e.g. her photo ID, may all be taken conveniently with a regular smart phone. Transmitted over the air to a central computer and database, geo-location data, picture, and time-stamp may be analyzed – often automatically – before payments are issued to a service provider. This may not have to become a process step for each and every service rendered, but why shouldn’t it become a randomized precondition for payments in cases where statistics and analytics raised a flag? It is simple enough, convenient, cheap, not intrusive, and probably good enough in many cases. Mobile technology alone will not be an answer to all cases of fraud and abuse of public funds, but it may contribute fast and effectively.

Mobile process improvements drive down costs of subsidies

Protecting farmers’ incomes from effects of natural disaster is the purpose of programs like the USDA’sSupplemental Revenue (SURE) and non-insured crop assistance (NAP). In 2009 roughly USD 2 billion were spent on SURE alone.

Farmers with revenue losses from destroyed crop have to get farm service personnel to drive out to the farm and assess the damage and file the claim. Often, an assessment is first made on paper, then, back at the farm service office, re-keyed into a central system by the agent.

A more efficient system would take advantage of mobile technology. It could look like this: On his smart phone the farmer launches the SURE claim app and takes pictures of the damaged crop. The app uses the device’s built-in GPS system to accurately determine the location of the affected fields. When the farmer submits the claim to farm services, a series of automated cross-checks validates his claim: Weather data of the time and area would be considered as well as satellite imagery or claims of his neighbors. Only in cases where there are doubts about the accuracy of the claim would farm service agents have to drive to the farm and verify data themselves, otherwise the claim can be processed automatically, improving the efficiency of claims processing considerably. [Spare me comments on farmers not using modern technology: GPS help them navigate their fields and sophisticated sensors help them water, nurture and harvest their crops automatically…]

Mobilize and attract tourism and direct investment

City marketing takes advantage of mobile: Augmented reality showing the amenities of a future business park to prospective investors looking at a brown site through their mobile devices, attracting new businesses. Tourism agencies show the appearance of historic downtown as an overlay to today’s skyscrapers, accompanied by a narrative of prominent namesakes of streets and places nearby, exciting visitors. (Similar AR samples in this YouTube video).

Chirping flocks

As mobile computing becomes smaller, more pervasive and more ‘social’, we will get used to listen to chirpy streetlights, power lines or water pipes requesting maintenance via Twitter. Tires of all city-owned vehicles will flag any pothole they run over, helping the city decide on pulling up maintenance schedules for their vehicles, or on fixing the roads. Buses and metro trains reveal their whereabouts to riders every second, helping commuters make informed decisions when to expect them at which stop. Trash collector trucks notify you when it is time to get the full waste bin to the curb. Sensors of observation stations communicate local pollen levels to subscribing allergy sufferers via mobile. Open government, social networks and mobile technology grow together, and create new value to citizens, as apps like Recalls plus show: Parents just need to enter the items they bought for their children, or select the child’s age, the app monitors recalls of respective items and alerts parents based on data all relevant US government agencies: CPSC, NHTSA, FDA and USDA.

Pandora? Cornucopia!

Let me conclude this blog series: Certainly there are risks in using mobile technology as with any other technology. But mobility offers a cornucopia of advantages to government as we have shown in the last couple of weeks in numerous examples. Proven, secure mobility solutions are available today. There is no benefit in waiting: The time to start with a sound strategy to mitigate the risks, to harness the savings and to start transforming your government is now.

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