Mobile Government is a Hot Trend, Again


Seems to me that mobile government has been on the hot technology trends list for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been working with government for decades. As a government professional, I recall trying to figure out how we could mount a laptop in a fire truck so it wouldn’t roll around, let alone be able to see the screen in the sunlight. We also tried to figure out how to use GPS devices for things other than survey data collection, and used Compaq IPaq Pocket PCs, small screen and all, to collect data in the field. Technology and mobile devices have advanced, and yet, here we are with mobile government on the list again. Devices of course have embedded GPS; there is not as much of a need for ruggedized laptops, especially with low cost devices and the cloud for backing up your data; screen resolution doesn’t present the same problems; and we can pretty much capture data on any device, anytime, anywhere.

Each year I run a series of activities to gauge where governments stand in their thinking regarding different trends, and just how far they have progressed. I just wrapped up an effort around mobile. What I learned is that the same applications governments highlighted as a priority 20 years ago, are the same I saw this past year. Does anyone else find this a bit disappointing? That’s not to say there aren’t some forward leaning organizations doing amazing work with cutting edge mobile technology, but they are not in the majority.

There are innovating governments paving the way for the next generation of mobile trailblazers like:

  • Horry County, South Carolina using drones to map coastal erosion
  • San Diego County, California using in-field surveys to speed up the process of collecting health data via mobile device
  • City of New Orleans, Louisiana crowdsourcing tens of thousands of blighted properties in days, not months
  • State of Iowa’s Department of Transportation monitoring snow plows in real time, deploying equipment where it’s needed, all while calculating operational costs

Why when you see other governments dealing with the same exact issues and see a clear return on investment, do you not replicate that success?

Today we see the trends of the past becoming integrated into mobile strategies. What was a concern at one point, is not as much of a concern anymore. We don’t look at what GPS to use or how we will post process the data. For every discipline, outside of engineering and public works, your mobile phone may be all you need.  We assume geographic information systems (GIS) will be part of the solution and we need to evolve past dots on a map.  On the horizon, we see opportunities for virtual and augmented reality, sensors integrated into infrastructure, wearables, and so much more.  What will mobile government look like? How long will it take to get there?

If there is one take away from my research this year, it is this: governments are moving away from clipboards and are starting to be more creative in how they collect data in the field. And I want to reiterate there are some really intriguing mobile applications coming from governments. But, what is missing is the vision and architecture to string entire workflows together, and in some cases, connect complimentary technologies. A simple step in a comprehensive strategy would be integrating route optimization into the same application that dispatches field crews to collect the data. We see a lot of thought put into automating field data collection, but we do not see a thorough strategy to exploit opportunities that would improve efficiency and productivity.

Throughout my deep dive into the application of mobile this year, I noticed that even when the technology was extended free of charge or was readily available, many jurisdictions failed to pull together a strategy that connected the field directly into the back-office systems, leveraged real time decision making, 3D, imagery, and so on. This list may seem immense and unapproachable, but most consumer apps we interact with in our daily lives offer these functionalities. So, if it’s not the availability of the technology, then what is it? My observation is that it is a reluctance to shift thinking towards mobile as a strategy, rather than a solution to point data collection. A mobile strategy should include ways to plan, coordinate, navigate, capture, and monitor your work.

I suppose mobile will continue to be a hot trend in government. There are simply too many government employees working in the field regularly or looking to engage citizens through mobile approaches. The only thing that may change from year to year, is organizational priorities, advances in technology, and the definition of ‘mobile government’. Here’s to next year.

Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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