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Is There an App for That? Developments in Mobile E-Gov

May 22, 2012 

Category:  Public Participation Information Technology

I just upgraded to a smartphone, and I now have apps to find the weather, get directions, read news, access Microsoft Office, and most importantly, find out when my next bus will arrive.  People love their apps, and local governments are getting into the act too.  The trick is to effectively take advantage of a new technology to build tools that help residents and local businesses quickly access services and the valuable data assets that local governments have.

This post shares some of the interesting things I noted in my search for the ultimate local government app.  For some readers, there is nothing new here.  But for others, like myself, who have only an awareness that changes are taking place, it may provide an overview.  I noted that there are tech companies that develop apps for specific needs, there are hosted solutions, collaborative solutions . . . and then there are app contests where individuals are challenged to make use of government data to create applications that enable any government entity or organization to make information about its services more accessible.

Hosted Mobile App Services

Through a donation from PublicStuff, the city of Normandy Park announced in April the addition of a Mobile App to report service problems, ask a question, or pass information on to city staff.  Three other cities, Mountlake Terrace (Anytime MLT), Mukilteo (Ask Mukilteo), and Longview (Ask Longview), are using  Government Outreach automated services to iPhone and Android phone users. Citizens can enter a request, suggestion or comment, or can report nonemergency problems and receive a reply email with tracking number and estimated response time. Longview instructions say iPhone or Android users simply open the application, select an issue, take a picture, and submit. The application picks up the exact location and sends the issue directly to the Longview staff member who can fix it.  Other companies providing similar services to local governments in other states include City Sourced and  SeeClickFix.

Apps Contests

My first introduction to apps contests was at the 2010 Open Government West conference in Seattle.  There was a lively discussion of open source data and the development of applications. That year, the British Columbia government kicked off the Apps for Climate Action Contest.  It challenged Canadian software developers to raise awareness of climate change and inspire action to reduce carbon pollution by using data in new applications for the web and mobile devices using a catalogue of its best climate and greenhouse gas emission data.  At about the same time, the city of Portland launched the CivicApps for Greater Portland design contest to showcase regional open data and promote collaboration between citizens and government to create applications that address civic issues and benefit the greater Portland community.

Since those pioneering competitions, app contests have become very popular.  The Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet), Portland, and Travel Portland sponsored a Tour PDX App contest to produce applications that  encourage visitors to use transit to see the many great attractions, shopping areas, and restaurants the area offers. The winners may be viewed on TriMet’s website. Coming up this summer is the Evergreen Apps Challenge, a joint initiative of the city of Seattle, Washington State’s Broadband Office, and King County to produce sustainable applications to help find new and useful ways to use data about the region.

Are these contests really useful in developing local government apps?  A panel discussion at the 2011 Open Government West meeting in Portland concluded that focused application contests have more potential for government agencies in tight times. "Hackathons" (intense, one-day contests) are not nearly as likely to produce an application that is viable in the long term. What they seem to excel at is building a civic-minded community of activists. See Justin Houk’s blog post, The Pros and Cons of Government App Contests, that summarizes the panel’s remarks.

Cool Apps from Open Government Data

OneBus Away, a favorite of commuters in the Seattle area, was one of the first apps developed using King County data.  It provides real-time arrival information for a number of transit agencies in the Puget Sound region. The app was originally developed by University of Washington (UW) students and continues to be hosted at the UW, but receives funding from transit agencies.  In 2010, it received the Washington Technology Industry Association award for “Best use of Technology in the Government, Non-profit or Educational Sector.”

Seattle Rain Watch is a real-time weather system that provides rain accumulation totals for the past 1-to-48 hours and forecasts rain accumulation for the next hour for the Seattle metropolitan region. It is a product of the Mesoscale Analysis and Forecasting Group at the University of Washington's Department of Atmospheric Sciences. Funding and one of the rain gauge networks is supplied by Seattle Public Utilities.

Green Lake Park Tree Walk Map is an online tree walk map for Seattle’s Green Lake Park created by the Tree Ambassador Program. It contains information about some of the more notable trees along the Green Lake path, such as tree names, photos, location with GPS coordinates, tree size, habitat, and some tidbits of tree history. You can follow the map on your mobile phone. The Tree Ambassador program is an outreach project of the Green Seattle Partnership. It empowers volunteers to become stewards of the urban forest and serve as resources for their local community. Program work is funded, in part, by a grant from the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry program.

San Francisco’s SFpark was recently highlighted in Planning Magazine.  SFpark sensors, installed in on-street parking spaces and in city-owned garages, track when and where parking is available. Sensor data is uploaded wirelessly to the SFpark data feed, making this information available to the public via this website, smartphone applications, text message, and eventually 511.

DuPage County, Illinois has created a mobile application, the Green Grid using GIS implementation, highlighting many sustainable projects county‐wide.  The Green Grid will be updated as green projects are completed, and future options may include energy star rated buildings and renewable energy roofs.  The Green Grid provides commuters and fleet drivers with locations of the nearest alternative fuel stations and advanced vehicle technology programs. It also shows where LEED-Certified buildings are located throughout the county.  See Government Technology Article County Mobile App Locates Alternative Fuel Stations.

Other Sites of Interest

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.


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