Home U.S. Government on Your Smartphone? There’s an App Store for That

U.S. Government on Your Smartphone? There’s an App Store for That

On Friday, the Obama administration re-launched USA.gov, the online portal that connects citizens to government agencies, departments and resources. The newly re-launched site features cosmetic and navigational improvements, including an improved search tool and a continually updated home page graphic that highlights some of the most requested items.

But one of the more interesting changes for the new USA.gov is the launch of a mobile application store where already there are 18 apps available.

The mobile application store offers apps from a number of agencies and branches, including apps from the EPA, Veterans Affairs, FEMA, FBI, NASA, TSA and others, each providing quick access to needed government information. There are apps for tracking product recalls, staying on top of White House news, finding the nearest embassy and even calculating your BMI, – seemingly an odd inclusion at first, but it actually reflects an ongoing health initiative from the NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Most of the apps aren’t new, except for the recalls app and those from the TSA, FBI and U.S. Embassy. But never before had the wide smattering been collected in one unified resource.

Progress? Or Disenfranchisement?

The end result of that collection may either represent a promising development that shows off how the government is embracing technology, or a disappointing example of the disorganized nature of big government when it comes to tasks such as, depending on your perspective.

On the one hand, some will say it’s a measure of progress to see the government acknowledging the promise of the mobile Web. As Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter R. Orszag explains, “In our daily lives, we use online and mobile media to do everything from banking to shopping, booking a trip, and taking a class. Yet, too often, when it comes to interacting with the federal government, it’s as if time stood still… ” He continues, saying that the new Mobile Apps Store can be used to “unlock useful government information and give it to people in a way that they can use it conveniently and quickly.”

Orzag says most of the apps are compatible with iPhone, BlackBerry and Android devices.

However, on closer inspection, some apps are iPhone-only, others are in Android format plus mobile Web format, and others still are mobile Web apps only. It’s a somewhat confusing lineup for a general population who needs a Mobile App FAQ such as this that explains what exactly an app even is. (“An app, short for “application,” is a tool that helps you accomplish a task or find information,” the FAQ reads.)

While it’s good to see that there are native applications available for popular handset operating systems like Android and iPhone, it’s disappointing that all the apps aren’t offered in mobile Web format as well. That leaves out a large part of the mobile population whose phones have Internet access and are capable of browsing the Web but aren’t listed among “top” phones like the Droid or iPhone.

Even more concerning is the statement that some of the mobile applications may cost a small fee. (The 18 currently listed are free, however).

There’s an App for That! *But It’s on the iPhone and You Have to Pay for It

The BetaNews website uncovered a spreadsheet hosted on USA.gov that lists 109 mobile applications and their cost, when applicable. A good handful appear to be in iPhone-only format with an associated fee.

Does this mean that the convenience of an easy-to-access mobile government is only available to those who can not only afford to buy the priciest smartphones, but also afford to purchase mobile applications? It appears so in several cases.

As a reader of a technology column such as this, you may fit that description and be pleased with this development. But as someone who’s concerned about the U.S. mobile population as a whole, seeing the government create iPhone app after iPhone app may leave you feeling a bit uneasy. At the very least, there should be an accompanying mobile Web site for every native application listed… if there are native applications developed at all, that is.

The USA.gov mobile app store launch comes only days after it was revealed that the U.K. government spent thousands of pounds developing iPhone applications itself. Is the U.S. government about to make the same mistake?

For more thoughts on an apps-driven government, check out “White House CIO Vivek Kundra and His Beliefs About the Cloud

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