When residents of the city of Riverside, Calif., see a downed tree, a dead animal or a pothole, they don't have to go home and write a strongly worded letter to the city council. They simply open the Riverside 311 application on their smartphones and report it with a few finger taps.
The city began deploying its 311 app for the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry platforms about a year ago, says Steve Reneker, Riverside's CIO. "We get 33,000 311 calls every month," Reneker says. "We didn't have the personnel to respond to all of those calls in a timely fashion, and we don't have people to answer the phones 24x7. We figured it was much simpler for people to collect information remotely and enter it into the 311 system from their smartphones."
Reneker says 10 percent to 15 percent of Riverside's 311 reports are now generated via the mobile app, a number that's growing by about 30 percent per month. He says it's already had a positive effect on graffiti, which the city is required to clean up within 24 hours of notification. Using the mobile app, citizens can capture images of graffiti tags, which are stored in a police database and matched to other graffiti by the same artist. Citizens who help identify individuals responsible for graffiti can receive a reward of up to $1,000.
People who might not have bothered to call in or visit the city's website to report graffiti are more likely to do it with the mobile app, he says.
"The app has helped the city be on top of these issues, and it's empowered our citizens to help clean up the city and make it a better place to live," Reneker adds.
Riverside is just one of a growing number of city and state agencies that have embraced the mobile-app revolution, particularly for public-facing services such as 311 requests.
In Lincoln, Neb., roughly one out of four 311 reports is submitted via the city's Lincoln Action Center app. But it's the quality of the reports, not the quantity, that's the biggest change, says Terry D. Lowe, systems coordinator for Lincoln's information services division.
"We're getting much better information with the mobile app," Lowe says. "We get the GPS location, so we don't have to send a crew to go out and search for the spot. We're getting more photos, which makes the service request process more efficient."
The California Technology Agency has designed a mobile template used by nearly three dozen state agencies, with another 50 slated to develop their own apps over the next few years. Californians can tap into apps to check on wait times at their local DMV, find real-time traffic conditions for their commute, or locate the closest state park with an available camping site, says Scott Paterson, assistant secretary for the agency's enterprise solutions division.
"Most projections have mobile Internet access taking over from PCs by 2014," Paterson says. "I think it's going to happen even sooner than that. California is trying to meet the growing need for our citizens to not only get information but interact with government wherever they are."
Still, the road to app nirvana is not always smooth. Lincoln released its Android app months before the Apple iPhone version, in part because obtaining approval for apps to be distributed in the iTunes Store can be a long process. The city and county left the task to its app developer, Information Analytics, which secured approval late last year.
For Riverside's Reneker, whose IT department developed all three apps in about four months, the iPhone app was the easiest to build because it offers fewer bells and whistles than the Android version. Reneker expects to have fewer BlackBerry users going forward, so it's unlikely the city will continue to develop for that platform.
For California, the biggest challenge was getting the various agencies up to speed on how they could customize the template to serve their constituents' needs, notes Robert Meza, project lead for California Mobile.
Public-facing apps are low-hanging fruit, especially if they require minimal changes to an organization's existing processes, says Shawn P. McCarthy, research director for IDC Government Insights. The bigger challenge is developing apps for internal agency use, particularly those that require access to sensitive data.
That's a task most agencies have been approaching with caution; many are reluctant to outsource internal-app development because of security concerns, but don't yet have the expertise in house.
"There are plenty of developers looking for cool apps they can build and sell, and they can do it relatively cheaply," McCarthy says. "As long as the apps are built to interact with public-facing data sets, that's fine. But if you're developing for internal use by your agency's employees, that's a different situation."
For now, though, agencies have their hands full just trying to meet the public demand for mobile apps, says Lowe. Although Lincoln didn't market its mobile app, there are now roughly 1,000 active users. About 25 percent of the 311 requests Nebraska's capital city fields are entered via that channel.
"It completely shifted how people interact with the city. I think there must be a latent demand pent up for people who are saying, 'Where's my app so I can report this stuff?' " Lowe says. "It's better for the city and its citizens."
Follow these pointers for developing effective mobile applications.