Agencies looking for effective, innovative ways to solve problems or reach a specific population can benefit by thinking first of mobile solutions, according to several agency officials.
“Mobile has huge implications for content,” Haley Van Dyck, former director of citizen engagement at the Federal Communications Commission, said at the FedScoop MobileGov conference June 28.
For example, when the FCC held its Open Internet rule-making proceeding in 2010, the commission wanted to get comments from people who didn't have broadband Internet access or smart-phone access. Many of those consumers were accessible via their cell phones, so the FCC adopted a solution to facilitate consumers' comments on the rule-making by text message from their cell phones, she said.
“It was the first time we had considered mobile comments at the FCC,” Van Dyck said.
The FCC also created an iPhone application as part of its planning for the National Broadband Strategy. In writing the strategy, the commission was looking for ways to collect data directly from consumers about the broadband connection speeds on their home networks.
The agency developed the Consumer BroadBand Test in both Web, iPhone and Android formats, and more than 2 million consumers have taken the test to date, Van Dyck said.
“It has been a wonderful way for us to diversify the data we are getting, and to diversify how we are getting it,” Van Dyck said.
There was some resistance in the commission to collecting data directly from consumers, because of the need to protect the consumers’ privacy and locations. That problem was fixed by aggregating data at the census tract level to hide individual addresses, she said.
The “mobile first” approach also was considered is in the recent redesign of the FCC.gov website and is being used on an ongoing basis in preparation of agency communication materials.
The FCC.gov website went through a comprehensive redesign on an open-source platform, relaunching in May. “We made sure that FCC.gov was easy for spinning off mobile applications,” Van Dyck said. “We spun off mobile applications within six days after launch.”
The commission's external communications, such as news releases, are being designed for mobile use, with shorter sentences and simplified formats, she added. The communications that are designed for mobile applications can easily be transferred to online and offline uses, she added.
“If you go mobile first, it is an easy, inexpensive and efficient way to get content out,” Van Dyck said. She recently accepted a position at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
At the Health and Human Services Department, the AIDS.gov mobile website was designed specifically to meet the needs of a target population of people with relatively high rates of possible HIV infection. That target population also happens to be higher than average users of mobile phones, said Michelle Samplin-Salgado, new media strategist for AIDS.gov.
For example, one of the targeted groups is African-Americans, who as a group have higher rates of HIV infection than the U.S. population as a whole. About 46 percent of African-Americans use mobile phones to access the Internet, which is higher than the average rate, she said.
The content on AIDS.gov also reflects puts the needs of mobile users first, because it was designed based on an analysis of mobile-based searches of the Internet related to AIDS information, Samplin-Salgado said.
At the Agriculture Department, Kim Taylor, director of Web services for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said she has been advancing a more prominent role for mobile solutions at the agency by incorporating language into the agency’s long-term strategic plan. The strategy is intended to help shape future budget planning, she said.
The department in May started a mobile website for its popular “Ask Karen” application in which the virtual homemaker character Karen offers customized cooking and food safety tips based on consumers' questions. A five-person USDA team provides the information made available through the “Ask Karen” database.