Pega Director of Mobile Marketing Steve O’Brien recently wrote an e-book titled “Avoiding the Mobile Hangover – 7 Steps to Mobile App Success”. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think how appropriate this is for government’s mobile first priority that is in full swing right now. What follows is the second part of a two-part interview with Steve.
Cathy Novak: How important is the ability to have off-line access to the applications? What could happen if off-line access isn’t built into the application from the beginning?
Steve O’Brien: Well, I hate the answer “it depends,” but that’s the truth. In my previous example of the Amtrak conductors, the only reason that app can be successful is that it provides offline access. That train can go as fast as 125 mph and zoom in and out of coverage areas (one of the reasons the WiFi on the train is not 100% reliable yet). Imagine if the conductor could only scan tickets when he had a solid connection? It wouldn’t work. So offline access is crucial in that case.
What if the FEMA app only worked when the connection was strong? It wouldn’t be very useful in disaster situations, so offline access is again critical. In other instances, when the information being displayed must be real-time accurate, offline access is unimportant or even worthless. Imagine a weather app that works offline, but hasn’t been updated in a week.
So in general, mobile apps that are used to collect information need to work offline. Apps that are used to deliver real-time information, not so much. Although I’m sure you can think of exceptions to both these cases, this approach is true in general.
Cathy: Many government systems are still running in a legacy mainframe environment. Should – and can – government mobile applications directly integrate with these systems? What are the challenges and possibilities in integrating mobile applications with these legacy systems of record?
Integrate, yes. Directly integrate? No. Mobile app usefulness increases by a factor of 3 when integrated with back-end systems of record. Otherwise, the app can become disconnected, inaccurate, and useless or even harmful.
But as we discussed earlier, governments have unique challenges and responsibilities in protecting privacy because of the nature of information they collect (health, taxes, property, family, etc.) and the systems used to collect it. Similar challenges exist in the private sector – sometimes back-end systems are antiquated and complex, sometimes the data is sensitive and shouldn’t be exposed.
The solution has been to provide back-end integration through some sort of intermediary. There are all kinds of fancy terms for this – services layer, mobile middleware, four-tier architecture – but they all mean the same thing. Provide mobile apps with access to back-end systems of record, but not by directly connecting to those systems.
Cathy: Security is always of vital concern when discussing government data. What should government know about the security of their mobile applications?
The good news is that it’s almost as easy to build a highly secure mobile app as it is to build a terribly insecure one, so there’s no excuse for not going mobile. Security in the mobile world is all about access to back-end systems and the handling of data once it’s accessed. A secure mobile client with enterprise-level authentication is as secure as a desktop. The same data encryption is available to mobile devices as is available on the web.
But it all hinges on the app developer choosing the appropriate levels of authentication, authorization, and the right integration strategy. If you allow a property appraiser to download tax information for an entire city and store it unsecured on her mobile phone, then you’re asking for trouble when she loses the phone at happy hour. Alternately, if the device is secured with fingerprint/password protection, and she only has access to the relevant data for the day/week, and you have Mobile Device Management capabilities to wipe the device in the event it’s lost, then it’s unlikely there will ever be a problem.
Cathy: In 2014 in US State and Local Government, mobile applications were considered high priority for State CIOs. According to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers report, State CIO Priorities for 2015, there was an increase in BOTH coordinated mobile programs, as well as fragmented mobile programs across the 50 states. Is this a trend that mirrors the evolution in the private sector?
Steve: Absolutely. We in the tech industry are constantly amazed at how many mobile projects are initiated by line of business managers who have an immediate need and just want to solve a problem. The marketing department builds a mobile app to promote their latest product launch. The field service manager in the southeast builds a mobile app to track his technicians’ productivity. The finance manager in the UK builds an expense-reporting app just for her region. In the enterprise software world we tend to think in terms of architecture and platforms and strategy. Every enterprise should have a mobile strategy and build apps that are adaptable and reusable across the enterprise. But that’s not how it’s evolving in the real world.
On the plus side, it means that a lot of business problems are being solved by mobility. It also has driven a lot of productivity improvements, processes being streamlined, plus cost savings, and it’s all happening quickly. On the downside, it also means a lot of waste as people in different departments use different technology to build different apps that have no hope of ever working together. They’re disposable. Meaning none of this great work is reusable by other parts of the business and as the business needs change and grow, these apps will become outdated and useless and require a complete re-write.
Cathy: Have a look at this web site. This is a catalogue of 320 mobile applications states have developed for their constituents. A list of federal mobile applications can be found here. Can you get a feel and offer some observations on how these applications fall into the private sector evolution of mobile applications? What do you think the next wave of government mobile applications will be like?
Steve: Well, it’s great to see so many apps available from government for the benefit of constituents. Just browsing the lists I have to say that the maturity level is extremely low. Most of these apps are simply reproducing information that is available online or in a pamphlet somewhere, so making it available on mobile devices is certainly nice, but not groundbreaking. If you’re out fishing in Alabama I’m sure the “Outdoor Alabama” app is easier to use than trying to access the same information on their web site, which is always an alternative with your mobile browser.
But for government to reap the true rewards of mobility – cut costs and improve productivity for employees while increasing service and satisfaction for constituents – the next wave of government mobile apps needs to be about streamlining processes. Can I apply for a fishing license from my mobile device? Can I use my device to display my new valid fishing license? Will my device alert me when I’m fishing in a restricted area?
The amount of service and benefit that could be delivered is almost limitless. And the costs savings are significant. Bottom line: the sooner government truly “goes mobile,” the better off we’ll all be.
Cathy: Thanks for your time and observations around mobile first priorities in government.
Read Steve’s eBook Avoiding the Mobile Hangover: 7 Steps to Mobile App Success for more valuable information and advice!