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6/14/2012
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10 Handy Mobile Apps From Uncle Sam

Take a look at federal agencies' newest iPhone, Android, and mobile applications, ranging from a Smokey Bear wildfire-tracking app to an app that advises you how long it will take to clear customs at the airport.




Uncle Sam is getting hip to mobile devices. More than 100 mobile applications are now available from the federal government, a number that will keep growing as agencies respond to a recent White House initiative requiring them to make their services available for mobile use.

The federal Digital Government Strategy, introduced in May by the Office of Management and Budget, gives each federal agency an end-of-year deadline for delivering two "customer-facing services" to mobile devices. The goal is to serve the public "anytime, anywhere, on the device of their choice," said federal CIO Steven VanRoekel in a blog post on the Digital Government Strategy.

Many federal agencies were already moving in this direction. More than 100 mobile apps are available for public consumption through USA.gov, in categories such as health and fitness, education, and travel. Dozens of others are available to federal employees through portals such as the Army's Software Marketplace.

The feds recently released six more mobile apps, including the Forest Service's Smokey Bear app (pictured above), which provides advice on how to build and extinguish campfires and a real-time map of wildfires around the country. It's available as a website optimized for mobile devices, and as a download for iPhones and Androids.

The Digital Government Strategy aims to make content available through Web APIs and "on any device." Most of the apps on USA.gov are available for one or two--if not all--of the popular devices: iPhones, iPads, Androids, and BlackBerrys.

Agencies must decide whether to build mobile apps with their own internal resources, to contract development to a third party, or to leave the work to entrepreneurs and volunteers. Just last week, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences issued a request for information seeking help in the design and development of iPhone and iPad apps.

InformationWeek has been following the emergence of "mobile government" closely. In June 2011, we profiled 14 cool mobile apps from federal agencies, and in December we highlighted 10 iPad apps.

Here, we feature 10 of the government's newest mobile apps, most of which are available on USA.gov. Ranging from the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list to child safety tips, they reflect the varied nature of agency missions and the diversity of their constituencies.


The FBI's popular Ten Most Wanted list is one of the resources now available through a mobile version of FBI.gov. The smartphone-friendly site provides much of the content from FBI.gov, though some areas, including FBIJobs.gov and the Vault (a document archive), haven't been optimized for mobile devices. Users can switch between the full and mobile versions of FBI.gov as necessary.

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The FBI in June released an updated version of its Child ID app, originally introduced in August 2011. Available for both iPhones and Androids, the app lets parents carry pictures and vital information such as weight and height about their children in case of emergency. It provides tips on how to keep children safe and what to do if they go missing, with fast access to law enforcement authorities via email and phone.

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The Department of Energy's Science.gov site searches scientific information from more than 50 databases and 2,100 government-affiliated websites. On-the-go science buffs can now access that data trove via a mobile version of the website or a downloadable Android app. Users can get Wikipedia and EurekAlert results related to their searches.

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The National Cancer Institute has launched a mobile version of Cancer.gov that provides a dictionary of terms, and news and information on cancer types, diagnoses, treatments, and how to treat side effects. The site offers questions that patients should ask doctors and an 800 number for an NCI information line.

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The Smithsonian Institution's Access American Stories app, for the iPhone, is a mobile companion for visitors to the American Stories exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Intended for the visually impaired, the app provides audio descriptions of 100 historical objects on display. Visitors are invited to describe their own experiences, respond to comments left by others, and vote for their favorite displays.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection's aptly named Airport Wait Times mobile site provides the wait times--the estimated time from landing until passengers are screened by Customs agents--for arriving flights at 23 international airports. The calculated wait times reflect data from the past 12 months, based on time of year, airport, and terminal. CBP points out, however, that wait times don't include getting your bags or exiting the airport.

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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Policy and Development Research has developed a mobile version of The Edge, an online magazine with news and information on housing and community development issues and regulations. Recent topics covered include affordable housing, rebuilding communities after a disaster, and energy efficiency rules for buildings in California. It's also available as an Android app.

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Want to work for the IRS? The tax-collection agency has created a mobile version of its jobs listing site. "Use your talents to serve the American public and fund its future," the agency touts in its description of the app. But wait, aren't taxpayers already paying that tab?

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The National Archives and Records Administration's DocsTeach app for the iPad incorporates documents of historical significance. Teachers can use the related website, DocsTeach.org, to create activities for their iPad-equipped students. They might use, for example, the U.S. Constitution or Thomas Edison's patent filing for the light bulb. Users can zoom in and inspect the documents.

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