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White House: Apps for key government services coming within a year

Google Nexus and iPhone mobiles
John Brecher /

With more of us relying on our phones and the hundreds of thousands of apps available to help manage our lives, the Obama administration Wednesday issued a directive to every federal agency to make "two key government services the American people depend on available on mobile phones within the next 12 months."

"Americans deserve a government that works for them anytime, anywhere, and on any device," said President Barack Obama in a statement. 

The plan is part of a larger effort announced Wednesday to make "large amounts of government data more easily accessible to the public to spur entrepreneurs to develop innovative new services and mobile applications that take advantage of this data, creating new opportunities, businesses and jobs in the process. These actions are part of a larger digital strategy being implemented by the Administration — a roadmap that will guide the Federal government as it makes the most of new sources of digital information." 

"Mobile is rapidly becoming the platform of choice for Americans; it is now anticipated that by 2015 more people will be accessing the Internet via mobile phones than via traditional desktop computer," the White House said in a statement. "By next spring, the American people will be able to access dozens of additional government services on their mobile phones for the first time."

There are hundreds of federal agencies, so the task will be formidable. In the directive, the administration points to some successful examples already done by cities around the country, including San Francisco.

The City of San Francisco releases its raw public transportation data on train routes, schedules, and to-the-minute location updates directly to the public through web services This has enabled citizen developers to write over 10 different mobile applications to help the public navigate San Francisco’s public transit systems — more services than the city could provide if it focused on presentation development rather than opening the data publicly through web services.

Part of the directive calls for launching a "shared mobile application development program, in conjunction with the Federal CIO Council, that will help agencies develop secure, device-agnostic mobile applications, provide a development test environment to streamline app delivery, foster code-sharing, and validate official government applications."

U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel said, in a statement, that it is "critical that the federal government keep up with the way the American people do business. Already, families can use government apps to check the wait time at the airport, get access to critical veteran services, and check the status of their tax return. Today’s directive will accelerate our drive to make key services easily accessible to more Americans than ever."

Apps are indeed becoming more relevant in some ways than the Internet; the mobile programs are how more and more of us are getting information, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project and The Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University.

While the government effort is ambitious, security concerns — a growing issue with mobile phones that have increasingly sophisticated operating systems — are noted in the directive, called "Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People":

The rate of change of mobile operating systems, new update and notification capabilities from external hardware and software vendors, diversity of the devices themselves, and introduction of employee-owned devices (BYOD) also make security in the mobile space more challenging than in a traditional desktop environment and require new approaches to continuously monitor and manage devices and secure the data itself.

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