Mar 16 2010

Coming to a Handheld Near You

Feds see broad potential for mobile apps and expect to push them out to users in the not-too-distant future.

At many agencies, field workers and branch staff outnumber desk-bound feds. That’s especially true in the Defense Department. But this is far from an exclusive club: think about the Customs and Border Patrol at the Homeland Security Department, or the Federal Aviation Agency at the Transportation Department, or the hospital and medical care staffs within the Veterans Affairs Department.

“There’s a blossoming future for [handheld] devices to be productivity aids,” says Robert Carey, CIO for the Department of the Navy. Carey was not alone in this assessment among feds speaking at or attending the recent GITEC Summit in Orlando.

Although agencies’ missions might vary, the desire to provide remote workers with access to critical headquarters information and electronic tools is unwavering, says Justice Department CIO Vance Hitch.

“That’s certainly where we want to go,” he says. “We have islands of these tools now, but you can’t just provide applications without security and the ability to protect and monitor traffic at that level.” That’s what’s preventing enterprisewide use today, Hitch says.

First and foremost, employees want mobile apps to do their jobs. But from the IT department’s perspective, they also can improve an agency’s continuity of operations posture. Plus, with increasing access to such tools on their personal technology devices, users have begun to expect them in the work environment, too.

For such reasons, the interest in applications for mobile devices remains high, points out Tom Wiesner, acting CIO for the Labor Department.

“There are definitely folks out in the field who want to be able to do this kind of work,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time.”

The platform of choice remains a matter for debate, he says. Although small notebooks, netbooks and tablets are possibilities, Wiesner says, 3G and 4G smartphones are potentially just as viable.

Ready for Takeoff

With users in 4,000 locations within FAA, “we care about improving their capability and enhancing their productivity through mobile technology,” says Air Traffic Organization CIO Steve Cooper.

Cooper says mobile apps are one of the hot emerging technologies that he’s focusing on. Portable technology is nothing new at FAA, he notes, and cites the mini-notebook devices toted around by aircraft inspectors. But at 7 pounds, mobile is a relative term — “they’re too heavy,” he says

The ability to let users tap into data and transactional apps on smartphones or other truly mobile platforms is very appealing, Cooper says. Adoption of such tools also dovetails with his team’s interest in technology that can enhance and expand what he called the “information value chain” — the capture support, transformation, staging and presentation of data and information.

Mobile apps pass the FAA sniff test for an emerging technology that’s ready for the next step toward adoption, notes Cooper. That test? “Can we use the capability to provide a new service that we couldn’t provide before or to make a service better?” he says.

Preparing for Care

In the federal healthcare arena, there is ample opportunity to take advantage of mobile apps, says Vish Sankaran, director of the Federal Health Architecture at the Health and Human Services Department.

“The need for information at the point of care is primarily what we’re trying to push here,” Sankaran points out. He says the government doesn’t have enough IT geeks, so HHS must spend millions to help with health IT infrastructure development.

Looking ahead, he says a key area of interest will be bedside apps that can evolve or adapt to each case of care, compared with apps that support some sort of standard form that doctors open up and fill in at the point of care.

Although the emphasis is on clinical-care applications, Sankaran expects there will be an equally hot demand for administrative and consumer apps, too.

A Social Phenomenon

The evolution and use of social media tools will also drive mobile apps, suggests Emma Kolstad Antunes, web manager at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

“Mobile is pretty critical” when developing social media and other applications for public use, Kolstad Antunes says. “When you talk about access and broadband, then you are talking about barriers to participation,” she points out. Agencies shouldn’t provide things that are single-platform dependent because “some people may never have broadband.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Dalroy Ward agrees. “We can’t change processes so that they are so nimble and quick that we disenfranchise people on the other side of the digital divide,” says Ward, chief of information services for the Information Access Division of EPA’s Office of Environmental Information. The government must allow everyone into the process, he cautions.

That stipulation is one reason that EPA is excited about the federal broadband initiative, Ward says. “The broadband initiative might mean the digital divide becomes a matter of education, where right now, it’s a matter of pure access.”

In the interim, say Ward and Kolstad Antunes, creating applications that can run on phones makes both business and cultural sense.