Gov App Delivers Search, Recalls and 1-Click Access to Talk to a REAL FRIGGIN' PERSON!

Originally posted on GovWin
The federal government is increasingly looking to appear more modern, entrepreneurial, even hip … while at the same time demonstrating frugality.

Difficult? Let’s just say they could have chosen a simpler task. But why follow the simple path when the difficult one also happens to be the best for citizens? Sound like a schmaltzy marketing pitch? Maybe – only that it’s not.

Don’t Worry, Be Appy

The path chosen was clear when the Feds this week announced the release of an update to USA.gov mobile for iPhone, iPod and iPad (iPad version is non-native). And if you caught the recent report about how behind the curve most sites are when it comes to wireless support it’s worth noting the government’s in something of a leadership position this time.

The first thing you’ll find after downloading the free software from Apple’s App store is the striking imagery gliding through the background (Flickr-app-like), including shots of the space shuttle, Hubble space pics… that kind of thing.

The interface atop the roaming photos includes a Bing-backed search.usa.gov input field with tabs to filter results by “Web” (for searching general Fed and state sites), “Images” and “Recalls” – also a separate and popular mobile application that displays product recalls.

Keep in mind this is bounded by a focus on information from government agencies. For instance, a search on Anthony Weiner returned nothing related to gyms or underwear – only the former Congressman.

It’s All In Your Hands

“This is the first USA.gov iPhone app,” said Sarah Crane, Director of USA.gov, of the recent upgrade of the months-old app. “It parallels the USA.gov mobile site by featuring search capabilities across the federal, state, and local governments, contact information for elected officials, the latest government news, and other USA.gov content.”

The mobile “site” Crane mentions is actually a Website skinny’d down for mobile phone browsers, and is focused a little more on guidance. It’s also embedded in the new app as a mobile analogue for the USA.gov site.

The app was developed by the General Services Administration (GSA) as part of a larger effort to move government into the mobile world, according to Crane. She noted the “GSA is spearheading the effort by offering best practices, practical advice, and policy assistance through the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies (OCSCIT) Mobile Program.”

Other guide features are tightly nested in the new app under a phone icon: touching here presents a menu of ways to contact the federal government but also a two-click method of calling the Feds direct – nice. The embedded Web browser is a little slow (or maybe it’s the site it’s pulling) — the USA.gov blog waited a while as a blank screen thought about whether to get out of the way. Eventually it did.

Also pretty handy, especially for the forgetful and those not great at typing on small devices, is that prior search queries are recalled and displayed conveniently below the input field.

I do wish that the font was larger (or could be increased in the settings) – not everyone has mobile-optimised eyesight like my teen son.

GSA’s not alone in mobilizing for citizens. Others in government have made news lately as well by touting mobile and “thin clients,” like DCMA CIO Jacob Haynes this week at Deltek’s MarketView 2011 conference.

Is It Necessary?

With any new product a natural first question is “What problem(s) are you solving?” Should this standard apply to government? I think so, but asked for Crane’s thoughts on the subject:

“The iPhone app … search spans millions of government pages and returns results in milliseconds, so no matter what a visitor needs, he or she can rest assured that it will be at their fingertips and from an official government source,” she said. “The app also increases accountability – when a person sees an issue that should be addressed by his or her elected officials, he or she can call and report the issue immediately.”

She also noted the application provides a solution to being caught unaware regarding recall information: It pulls together an aggregation of the latest recalls from across government, so users don’t have to know which agency or which product has been deemed unsafe.

“It’s a very practical application to have at your fingertips when grocery shopping, considering a major purchase, or buying children’s toys and furniture (as well as other products),” she said.

The GSA’s been following the mobile trend for years, responding with http://m.usa.govhttp://m.gobiernousa.gov,http://apps.gusa.gov, and http://apps.gobiernousa.gov/ which include support for Spanish speaking citizens. The application was developed with the help of Mobomo via Blue Beacon Consulting.

Crane also notes this is no orphan product: “This app, and many others, are featured in the Government Apps Gallery (http://apps.usa.gov).”

Disclosure: I work with Blue Beacon, but not on this product.

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