Tap mobile apps for data, services, govts urged

Growing popularity of mobile devices and apps a signal for governments to deliver services and engage citizenry via apps, note industry watchers, who add stringent guidelines are necessary.

Governments should look into engaging citizenry and delivering services via mobile apps as the use of Web-enabled mobile devices proliferate among end-users, industry watchers said. At the same time, online and development guidelines need to be developed and observed.

Steve Hodgkinson, Ovum's research director of IT in the Asia-Pacific region, said as smartphones and tablet devices rapidly become ubiquitous in the community and, in turn, emerge as preferred devices for citizens to access both information and interactive online services, government agencies should "actively consider" how these can be provided through mobile applications.

"If citizens are using mobile apps then government agencies need to be on mobile apps in order to remain relevant to a new generation of 'digital natives' and to ensure information and services are positioned to compete with alternative sources," he said in an e-mail.

The analyst also pointed out that some services will be particularly beneficial if available through apps because these are "time-, place- or context-sensitive". During public emergencies, for instance, citizens may need to access information or services urgently wherever they are and smartphones and tablets are often the only devices still working when electricity is interrupted, noted Hodgkinson.

Frank Levering, research manager of government insights at IDC Asia-Pacific, concurred. He said IDC is forecasting 128.6 percent year-on-year growth worldwide for mobile app growth in 2011 and it "makes perfect sense" for governments to explore this trend to communicate directly with citizens.

That said, he pointed out that government agencies have a "greater responsibility" than private-sector developers with regard to app quality and security. "If a commercial app is poorly built, people will download an alternative app with similar functionality. Likewise, they will not share sensitive, personal information if they feel [their] data is vulnerable while using public sector apps," the analyst explained.

If done right, however, governments would stand to benefit from increased citizen awareness and even satisfaction, Levering noted.

Forrester Research's vice president and principal analyst, Bryan Wang, cited China's iPad app launched by the government's press office--the Information Office of the State Council--in April this year as an example of how mobile apps can better engage its citizenry. He pointed out that e-government services are still not popular in China, so the introduction of the iPad app, which makes content such as whitepapers and videos of past council meetings, will help "increase people's satisfaction" toward public-facing government entities.

Hong Kong is another market that has invested resources into app development to deliver key services to its citizens.

A spokesman for the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that it has already launched various mobile apps to "deliver timely information, receive enquiries and complaints and provide handy utilities to the public" and a list of these apps and the mobile platform they run on is available online.

Additionally, there's also a pilot portal, named Data.One, which facilitates the wider dissemination of public sector information for "value-added re-use" that was launched in March this year, he pointed out.

Data such as names, addresses and coordinates of public facilities such as schools, hospitals and government offices, among others, as well as real-time traffic data of main roads and average traffic speeds, is now available until Sep. 30, 2012, according to the portal.

The spokesman revealed that "enquiry and complaint services, traffic- and utility-related information, facility rental, online booking and library services" are some of the most commonly sought after mobile services.

An Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) spokeswoman also said citizens embrace mobile apps that can effectively tap on smartphones' unique features to provide useful services. For instance, mobile apps that are able to provide information in the context of users' location are some of the more popular government services delivered, she noted.

As to whether mobile apps will replace Web portals to deliver public services, she pointed out that mobile apps are targeted at those on the move, while Web portals meant that users are location-bound to a PC or laptop. With this in mind, the delivery model depends on the type of service being provided, the spokeswoman said. Government services that require significant data entry, for example, would be less suitable to be delivered and consumed via apps.

Ensuring good quality apps
As more governments embrace mobile apps, stringent quality control and security guidelines need to be drawn up and adhered to, the analysts urged.

Wang, for one, said the Chinese government, for example, will need to make sure that the maintenance of such mobile apps, particularly for services-related apps, is up-to-date. Currently, many local government Web sites are not well-maintained, he noted.

Hodgkinson, too, suggested public sector bodies learn from past lessons to avoid former missteps. One example of where things might go wrong, he pointed out, would be to allow uncoordinated app development to create a fragmented, inconsistent and poorly integrated portfolio of error-prone apps, which deliver sub-par user experience.

"Mobile apps are simply the latest ICT-enabled delivery platform for government services and information, so they need to be implemented within existing ICT policy, development, implementation, operations and support processes and framework rather than be treated as an additional layer of cost and complexity," he explained.

Levering said as governments phase in more advanced services via mobile apps, it would be necessary to extend certain tools to these apps such as identity verification for critical services such as tax filing.

"Provided the governments can pace themselves to launch each phase of apps when these are ready and fully-tested, there is no reason why public sector mobile apps wouldn't succeed," he added.


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