Mobile apps give first responders the tools they need to do their jobs no matter where they are, says DHS’ Stephen Dennis.

Aug 03 2012

What Can the Federal Government Learn From Angry Birds?

The need for mobile capabilities is driving app adoption in government.

Sure, Angry Birds may be more popular with some folks, but the Homeland Security Department is using mobile apps to help save lives.

DHS is piloting apps that literally sniff out danger, using chemical sensors that communicate with mobile phones via Bluetooth. Its Urban Blast Tool can predict the damage that would be caused by each type of explosive device and help first responders decide what areas to evacuate first. The Standard Unified Modeling, Mapping and Integration Toolkit (SUMMIT) app helps Federal Emergency Management Agency workers responding to a natural disaster to quickly identify buildings that are in danger of crumbling so they can move citizens to safety. And the First Responder Support Tools (FiRST) app can tell fire and police personnel which streets to cordon off during an emergency situation and identify the closest hospitals and shelters.

“We are obviously very sensitive to the needs of first responders,” says Stephen Dennis, technical director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), part of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. “They are always in motion and don’t have a lot of time to prepare. There’s a compelling business case to make these kinds of tools available to them no matter where they are.”

The need for mobile data extends to medical personnel as well, says Horace Blackman, CIO for the Veterans Affairs Department’s Central Office. The VA recently introduced a PTSD Coach mobile app, which provides both caregivers and patients with information on how to screen for post-traumatic stress disorder and deal with its symptoms.

“That app originally came to us from one of our clinicians,” Blackman says. “We evaluated it, made sure it wasn’t divulging any protected health information, and embraced it. We have a rich history of innovation at the VA, and I think you’ll see us embracing a lot more apps like this over the next 12 to 18 months.”

Moving Data Where the Workers Are

Agencies across the federal government are adopting mobile apps that provide a wide variety of capabilities. This adoption is being driven in part by the Federal Mobility Strategy outlined by federal CIO Steven VanRoekel in January. The need to have information to make critical decisions, no matter where workers are, also is pushing the move to mobile apps, says Jerry Mechling, vice president of government research for Gartner.

“Where are people making the decisions that the government cares about?” Mechling asks. “It’s often not at their desks. But that’s been the primary geographic spot we’ve designated for delivering information. We now have the ability to reach people when they’re out and about.”

But many agencies are taking a cautious approach to mobile apps, in part because no one wants to be the first to cross the minefield.


Federal agencies that have developed custom apps or recommended outside apps

SOURCE: CDW•G Federal Mobility Report: Security Edition (February 2012)

“As with all new technology, if you go first and are successful, people applaud politely,” Mechling says. “If you go first and you’re not successful, everyone hears about it — and it can be a real career-changing event. Everyone would much rather go third.”

As a result, most application development has been focused on consumer-facing apps, where the risks are minimal. For example, the General Services Administration offers hundreds of consumer apps at its site, such as an app that lists arrival times for two dozen major U.S. airports, and an EPA guide on how builders can improve indoor air quality.

But tackling apps that are for agency use has proved a bigger challenge, in part because of security concerns, says Blackman. “We have to balance two competing priorities,” he says. “The first is the need to embrace technology and leverage the capabilities inherent within it. The other side is information security. We have a federal mandate to follow — FIPS 140-2. We need to look at all our devices to make sure they comply with that. You need to understand the nexus between those two things, while at the same time being open to innovation.”

There are other layers of complexity as well, says DHS’ Dennis.

“Should you aggregate citizen data in your app? There are a lot of privacy and civil rights concerns around that,” he says. “If you do, it’s important to build safeguards into the system so the data is properly anonymized and not traceable. What happens if the cell tower goes down and you suddenly lose access? The app needs to be robust enough to handle that. At the same time, you need the apps to stay up to date with the underlying hardware, which is changing all the time.”

Though the DHS hired a third-party developer to build its apps, Dennis says it’s important to have apps examined by people with a background in both the technology and the subject matter.

“We develop mainly out of house but do the tinkering in house,” he says. “That allows us to try out new ideas. It’s also really important to understand who’s touched your code.”

Catching Up

Though government tends to lag behind the private sector when adopting new technologies such as mobile computing, that’s starting to change, says Mechling. The tremendous popularity of devices such as the iPhone and iPad provide momentum for this shift, he adds.

The VA’s Blackman advises agencies to take a measured approach but continue making progress.

“We are still in the infancy of this,” he says. “It’s important not to simply slam the door on it and lock everything down. We want to embrace apps as something that’s part of the enterprise going forward.”

<p>Jonathan Timmes</p>