Cutting the cords
If the 1970s could be called the “d-decade” as its generation discoed into the history books, the 1990s could be dubbed the “e-decade” to denote an electronic age raised on rapidly evolving Internet technology and its ability to connect people with information. By the turn of the new century, traditional business had become all about the “e” — e-commerce, e-procurement, e-budgeting, e-scheduling — and the tangible benefits technology delivered to public agencies, private businesses and residents.
Today, local governments depend heavily on the “e,” using Web-based software, data storage and network computing capabilities to become more efficient. Most local governments have Web sites and intranet systems to develop more collaborative and effective work environments. However, through advancements in technology, e-gov is evolving into m-gov — short for mobile government — and once again transforming how government does business.
An information drive thru
M-gov provides information and services to public employees, residents and businesses through a host of mobile devices, such as cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), pocket PCs and pagers. For example, building inspectors in the field can use handheld devices to complete surveys and submit the data to home offices. Parking enforcement officers can use mobile units to scan a vehicle’s identification number and print parking tickets immediately.
Residents with cell phones can give first responders instant information about traffic accidents. People can be notified of parking restrictions, such as alternate-street parking, as they leave their homes in the morning, and emergency services can warn residents about natural disasters or homeland security threats. In short, if e-gov is a restaurant’s full menu, then m-gov is just the drive thru. With m-gov, people seeking certain information can drive up to a city’s Web site, quickly find the dataset and drive on.
E-gov and m-gov are differentiated by the amount of data offered, but both are driven by consumer demand. “M-government is a great complement to e-government,” says Larry Knafo, first deputy commissioner of New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). “E-government provides a comprehensive, data-rich offering of information and services to the public, employees, businesses and tourists. With e-gov, we can provide a whole suite of government applications and information and put them online. M-gov is about quick, targeted information that can be retrieved by a cell phone or PDA in articulate, short bits and pieces. It essentially brings condensed pieces of e-gov to people.”
New York City adopted the “we’re always open” mentality in the late 1990s when it launched the NYC.gov Web site. Based on geographic information system technology from Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI and software from Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle, NYC.gov is designed to be a gateway to government services, offering a range of information for residents, government, visitors and businesses. The latest news, events or emergencies, historical photos or property data can be found on the Web site, and users also can pay parking tickets or property taxes or order a birth certificate online.
DoITT officials also recognized that people increasingly were using mobile and wireless technology and developed applications to bring government to their mobile devices. Although the department successfully produced a few applications, such as real-time information on how and where to retrieve a towed vehicle, Knafo says staff quickly discovered they did not fully understand the mobile technology market. “People don’t expect their car to get towed. They don’t think about it ahead of time, and they certainly don’t download an application to their wireless device in case their car is towed,” he says. “If they don’t download the application, they might not be aware that they could go online and find where their car was towed. That was the initial problem we found with m-gov.”
Knafo says employees and residents have different uses for m-gov. “For the citizen it’s about getting information quickly; for the employee, it’s about giving them tools to do their job in the field because the field is where most of government happens.”
Today, m-gov helps many New York employees conduct business, including issuing parking tickets. Using handheld devices with bar code readers, officers can scan a vehicle’s VIN and print a ticket directly from the handheld machine. Building inspection data are collected and transmitted to the home office with mobile devices.
“Push e-mail” was one of the first m-gov applications DoITT implemented in 2000. Residents can register on the NYC.gov Web site for daily e-mail alerts and messages from an array of agencies, such as transportation, housing and health. With affordable housing a premium in the city, 85,000 people registered for housing availability alerts, while nearly 200,000 residents receive daily e-mails with other targeted information. The department is planning to deliver those same alerts to registrants’ cell phones.
Knafo says developing m-gov applications is not difficult, but the key is identifying e-gov applications or services that can be extended to mobile devices. “People want to use mobile connectivity to interact with government for simple, regular processes,” he says. “A perfect example of that is London’s congestion charge. Drivers can use their cell phones to pay the standard fee to enter the city center’s parking zone. That’s an ideal m-gov application. M-gov will really take off when we capitalize on those routine, repeatable transactions and enable people to use their mobile devices to handle them.”
A routine case
Capitalizing on routine procedures was exactly what the San Diego County Department of Child Support Services (SDDCSS) aimed to do when it launched its first m-gov application three years ago. Designed to automate case file requests, the Electronic File Locator System (ELFS) couples mobile PDAs with wireless and Web-based software to improve the department’s case file management.
SDDCSS maintains nearly 250,000 case files. With 800 staff, 11 floors and two buildings, the potential for lost files was very high. In fact, at any time, 20 percent to 30 percent of the files could not be located. When an attorney or paralegal requested a file, delivery took up to eight hours.
Using Macromedia’s ColdFusion MX and Dreamweaver MX software, Darius Fattahipour, senior IT engineer, says the department developed ELFS in two months. Now with mobile technology and ELFS, lost files are down to 1 percent, and file retrieval times have decreased to two hours, Fattahipour says. “Our old system was very inefficient,” he says. “Since our files are requested and returned daily, this was an ideal process for a mobile tracking application. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in efficiency, and we’ve had no security problems.”
Using mobile PDAs and the Internet, child support officers, attorneys and paralegals can contact the department to request case files. The department’s file clerks use PDAs to scan a file’s bar code, deliver it to the officer’s cubicle and scan the cubicle’s bar code. The system then records the location of each file, providing a real-time file tracking system. “ELFS allows our paralegals and attorneys to spend less time trying to find files and more time to focus on cases,” Fattahipour says.
The department is examining other potential m-gov applications, such as allowing people to make or track payments using a cell phone or other mobile devices. “Anywhere that you want data to be collaborative and pervasive is where you can use mobile technology,” Fattahipour says. “You want to have interactivity. You want to be able to send out queries or alerts to the consumer and let them respond in real time. Governments are going to have to embrace mobile technology, because the public expectation is for government data to be there all the time.”
So far, few American cities and counties seem to be embracing m-gov. According to Janet Grenslitt, survey and award programs manager at the Folsom, Calif.-based Center for Digital Government, the public sector is not yet at a point where the center can include the topic on its annual digital city and county surveys. In fact, the same concerns over security, privacy and lack of resources that cause many local governments to slowly develop e-government applications are felt even more strongly when considering mobile technologies, according to a November 2004 study released by M. Jae Moon of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
Knafo and Fattahipour think the caution stems from still being stuck on the “e”. “I think the emphasis is still on e-gov and developing e-gov applications and services,” Fattahipour says. “However, I believe as consumers become more dependent on mobile devices to get information, they’ll expect that from government as well.”
“M-gov can be a hard sell,” Knafo says. “It was for us when we first started because not everyone could see the benefit. So a lot of focus is still on e-gov, which makes m-gov more of a complementary piece, not its own entity.”
Moon’s same report, however, reveals that “70 percent of citizens believe that e-government makes government more accountable and improves government’s ability to respond to public emergencies.” That would seem to indicate that the public, the end user of most m-gov applications, would support a move toward mobile communication.
As the new year is approaching, many believe local government is still in “e” mode. Although m-government would seem to be a natural extension to further support the public’s perception of transparency and accessibility offered through e-government, extending the “e” to “m” appears to be in slow motion.
Mary Jo Wagner is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, B.C.