In the last several columns we discussed how local governments might deal with the use of mobile devices by the government’s employees. But how about the challenges posed by the use of smart phones, tablets, and other mobile devices by members of the public?
Websites Must Support Mobile Devices
Probably the first step to accommodate mobile devices is to ensure that the local government’s websites and public-facing data systems provide mobile access. Mobile devices use Internet browsers such as Safari and Android, which are different than those used by PCs. But the vendors of your data systems will now typically ensure that their applications support mobile devices and the required browsers.
Many governments obtain their websites through commercial services such as CivicPlus and GovOffice. These services now tend to provide support for a mobile website as well as a traditional site, and if so mobile device users should be able to easily access the website.
But for organizations with a website developed using custom programming, enabling the site for mobile devices can require developing and maintaining an additional “mobile” version of the traditional site, with a design more oriented to mobile devices. The mobile site would feature smaller screens, vertical scrolling, generally less data, and also possibly different data more oriented to people on the go (e.g., “What time does the library open?”). The traditional site must also be modified to detect incoming traffic from mobile devices and redirect it to the new mobile site—this avoids needing to set up and publicize a separate URL for the mobile site.
Many governments now also use social media services such as Facebook. But these services are already designed for use by mobile devices as well as traditional PCs.
Is There an App for Your Government?
Should your government host any “apps” for mobile devices? An app might be something like a smart phone application that would let citizens more easily report public works-related problems, with the smart phone technology providing for a more precise location of the problem. This sounds great, except you would not necessarily need this if as discussed above your website has a mobile version that offers the same or similar functions. And one advantage of doing everything through the mobile site is that this doesn’t require the user to be motivated to find and download any apps.
So why would a local government still want to sponsor its own apps? Reasons can include ease of use or the ability to focus on functions such as service requests. But a cautionary note is that developing such apps can once again require custom software development.
This has not stopped larger local governments—for example, the city of Los Angeles has developed the “MyLA311” app at www.lacity.org/MyLA311/index.htm. MyLA311 supports features such as submitting 311 service requests, finding city facilities, and paying utility and other city bills. MyLA311 takes advantage of the geographic positioning system (GPS) and camera functions on smartphones; for example, when someone submits a 311 request on a pothole they can include a photo of the pothole.
For smaller local governments with fewer resources, apps to file service requests may be available through their website service vendor and also third-party providers. Taking advantage of such services allows smaller local governments to be able to offer apps while avoiding custom software development.
Should You Be in the Wi-Fi Business, Maybe a Little Bit?
Smart phone users usually have Internet connectivity through their phone providers. But users of tablets and laptops may not have similar connectivity, at least not once they leave the house. Years ago, most local governments got into the business of providing Internet access by offering public access PCs at the library. Now, libraries typically also serve mobile device users by providing wireless Internet access in the library. But if you're not already doing this, adding a wireless access point at the library would be a great way to serve those with mobile devices.
Should your government be in the business of providing public Internet access at additional locations? If so, some locations to begin with might be the council meeting chambers and other public areas of the city hall or courthouse. But how about park pavilions and other recreational facilities, or areas of main street or the town square?
If you are already doing some interesting things to support moble devices, please comment below and share these experiences. But also let us know if you have concerns about how far the government should go in these areas.