If you weren’t at the Artisphere in Arlington this past Wednesday, you missed one of the best mobile development networking opportunities of this year. On the 26th, MoDev hosted its first government themed mobile conference packing Artisphere’s Dome Theatre. Yours truly was there with presenters from the US Census Bureau, the Department of Energy, and local acts featuring the designers of NYC.gov’s mobile application. We’ve now reached a state of maturity in mobile, and because of that maturity level conference presenters focused on three major themes. user centric applications, responsive design, and simplicity.
(Please excuse my iPhoneography)
MoDev was working yours truly in the morning, so, I eventually got caught up to the schedule when Rob Roberts, the Director of Digital Strategy at the Department of Energy dropped us some serious knowledge in the Dome Theatre. He showed us how responsive design resulted in a lower cost, platform independent web presence that delivers more to citizens and provides the taxpayers with value. Roberts lectured his guvvie collegues in the audience on his over arching strategy to gaining more users, “users don’t care about your bureaucratic structure. They only want the products they are looking for.” Using analytics and user research, he was able to win the political wars that usually crop up around feature creep allowing his team to focus on the user instead of management demands. His strategy has resulted in an Energy.gov that prioritizes content to the person.
Roberts’ presentation was followed by a very solid and informational treatise on properly handling sensitive user data from Morgan Reed, the Executive Director of ACT, the premier representative of the App Economy. ACT represents small and medium sized companies and defends them against the overreaching regulatory arm of government. But, at the same time, ACT forces us, our companies, to self-regulate and protect our users information while still innovating. Morgan had a great presentation, and after Verizon, Snowden, and the NSA shenanigans his presentation was pertinent and timely in front of a largely government audience. Bravo to the conference organizers for bringing him in.
After about the 20th crack on Healthcare.gov, I watched Mobomo’s presentation about how they made the Navy look even awesomer with their US Navy app. The US Navy, not to be confused with the recruiting tool -> America’s Navy, is a multiplatform application that eschews the do-it-on-the-web-and-make-it-responsive-credo by building simple, native shell applications for each platform that accesses a super efficient backend that pushes presentation and content to each device. I spoke with one of Mobomo’s engineer’s, David, about how the system works. Basically, the devices identify themselves with their backend. The backend services communicate with multiple Navy content servers, picking out the appropriate content based upon the user’s request, and pushes it to each device. Device and server communicate using JSON and users can customize their experience across a broad swath of categories. I’ve downloaded this app, and it’s really clever. The Navy is already awesome, what with carrier launches, big cannons, drones, submarines, and a number of Tom Clancy novels, it’s hard to imagine that an app could improve their image more. But it does.
We live in a world of constant change, and customer demands will often outpace our capacity. Sometimes, you’ll get a conference presenter that cuts through the BS and gets real with you. That was Bill Annibell’s theme, CTO of Sapient. Bill had no clicker. No slides. No fancy music. And from what I saw a sheet of paper on the lectern. Bill’s presentation revolved around the obsolescence of the CIO and CTO. Bill laid out a hospital case study in which a business group wanted to implement a mobile solution but the wizards in IT said no and rejected every overture. Instead of working within the system, this business group went around the CIO and CTO and built their own user centric mobile healthcare solution. Instead of throwing down a bunch of policies from the Ivory Tower, the business unit purchases iPads and let the doctors and nurses that provide care choose their own apps and software to their jobs. That’s right. No MDM and no forced apps. The result is that the care providers did a better job and patients felt like they were being properly treated by the hospital. The lesson of this story is that the CIO and CTO is being usurped, a great GoT term, by the Chief Marketing Officer and others because IT can’t meet the demands users need to stay in business. The CMO is short circuiting the traditional route because they are on the line for providing the business’ life blood, revenue. Annibell’s closing swing, “progress is moving at a pace IT can’t keep up.” Be careful out there.
USAID’s Merrick Schaefer had a very endearing presentation title, 6 Billion and Counting. Schaefer is the Technical Lead for USAID’s Mobile Data shop. He shared with us a very powerful application being used in African countries that helps health care workers, on the ground, collect mortality data using smartphones. Many African countries don’t have constant power, let alone access to clean water. Half the challenge of aid and relief workers is knowing how many and who needs help in any given area. Without reliable power, laptops and computers are a non-starter for data collection. Even though power may be an issue, GSM coverage in these countries is fairly plentiful. Schaefer and is team created a stack of open source technologies including Django and Syntactical SMS to turn cheap, feature phones into data collection devices. Eventually, the USAID team became so adept at their data collection efforts that the system was adapted into an onsite medical information and diagnosis system. We get caught up into needing the latest and greatest thing to solve our problems. Most of time, passion, ingenuity, and a will to make a difference are enough to bring forth great change.
In the afternoon, Todd Marks of MindGrub presented his 7 Steps to Government Mobile App Secrets. Todd gave us a 7 step guide starting from product definition and returning to monetization. Or for the government attendees usage. He asked the audience to go back to their office and ask themselves, “what in your agency can be enhanced through the use of mobile?” MindGrub has quite a few gaming products and asked the guvvies in the audience to think about how they can gamify their products.
Responsive web apps took up a bunch of the late afternoon activities. The American Bible Society dazzled the audience with screenshots of it’s online Biblical Analytics app. The ABS has been capturing a number of different data points ranging from the number of times a scripture has been read, the number of users searching within a specific chapter, and other interesting tidbits of the world’s perusal of the Bible. The result, beautifully rendered charts, content that’s adapted to the screen, and some insight on how to use tools like D3.js to build informative dashboards while turning big data into small data.
One of the most interesting and technical talks of the day was about fonts and the web. Honestly, I have never paid much attention to ems or rems. But Jason Cranford Teague made me a believer in the power of the font and how to choose the right font at the right time. He not only set the crowd straight, helping us understand when to shrink and when to expand, but his talk featured highlights of contrast, letting your words breathe, and when to use web fonts instead of images. It was a really great talk.
Closing out the day was Census Social Media honcho, Lisa Wolfish. Full disclosure, my company is working on a project in which Lisa will be involved. Her talk centered around the belief that since the mobile revolution and the advent of big data, the government is now finding itself in competition with private industry to provide information and services normally reserved for government. In the Census world for example, there are small companies building apps that provide insight and visualization into population metrics and demographics. You would expect the Census to have an app that provides this functionality first. Unfortunately, the Census wasn’t nimble nor had the foresight to see the coming wave of mobile. Today, the Census is working as an enthusiastic partner by exposing large swaths of its datasets and building apps that exemplify the usage of their data. Census is serious about sharing its data through APIs and are actively encouraging developers to build apps. They are really serious about mobile. I know from experience.
After a debate with the NYC.gov team and a whole day of responsive discussions, Will still thinks responsive and adaptive content are the same thing. Will Mapp is the CEO of Studio Codeworks, Inc. if you have any questions about mobile development (except for a definition differentiating responsive vs. adaptive) you can get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.