By John Moore for Digital Innovation Gazette
Governments increasingly pursue mobile app development to reach constituents as smartphones and tablets become widespread. In August, the U.S. Census Bureau released its first mobile app, America’s Economy. The app offers monthly economic indicators, among other statistics. The agency also debuted a public API, which allows developers to build their own apps using Census data. Census’ moves track with the White House’s Federal Digital Strategy, which calls for agencies to boost access to data.
Lisa Wolfisch, chief of Census’ Web & Social Media Branch and Alexander Permison, who works with Census’ Application Services Division, discussed America’s Economy.
What programming languages/development frameworks did you use to create America’s Economy?
Alexander Permison: We used ActionScript on the Adobe Flex framework and AIR run time. Leveraging the Adobe tool set allows us to do cross-platform development in mobile using the same kind of tools we use to do web development. It lets us build our skill set around one set of tools so we can leverage that for web and mobile devices -- both iOS and Android.
The app presents a lot of information from different sources -- Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics, etc. How did you go about creating the user interface? Did you pursue prototyping, multiple iterations, usability testing, for example?
Lisa Wolfisch: For the America’s Economy application, we developed information architecture wireframes and went through several iterations of those to really get the experience and the flow into something that we felt would work. We added the design on top of that and conducted multiple rounds of user testing. Then we did some tweaks and came up with the final version that would be released. We did that for versions for phones and for tablets.
A.P.: There were two parts of the problem to solve: the mobile app and the web APIs. Getting that right was one of the challenges.
America’s Economy is the first mobile app for Census. What did you learn during the process that will be able to apply to future mobile app efforts?
L.W.: We’ve been using the same design process -- an agile iterative design process. Another thing: There is a lot of collaboration involved in creating these apps. We really pulled a team together from across the enterprise -- communications, IT, subject matter people, research methodology people -- to collaborate on these apps.
A.P.: I work with the IT security people. For anyone in government, getting those security people involved early enough is critical. They need to figure out what security controls to adopt. Basically, they have a set of controls that come from NIST National Institute of Standards and Technology. If you are building an app, you have to meet all of those controls. NIST created those controls before mobile apps came out. The challenge is translating that to the mobile environment, which is going to be different than the enterprise environment. What we are doing security-wise is mapping those two things together. I feel like we are exploring a new territory there. What we are doing is going to inform what the future of mobile security looks like.
Is the idea behind America’s Economy and any future apps you build to get developers thinking about the possibilities of using Census data to develop their own apps? Do you plan to host developer challenges/codeathons?
L.W.: We do have a developer community around our data APIs and we are using that as a forum where developers can learn from each other and we can learn from developers about the kind of things they are really looking to do with our data, whether it is through our APIs or through traditional data downloads. We are looking at codeathons where we can get our data people together with developers to help answer their questions and learn what kind of services they’d like us to provide.
A.P.: Internally, we have a mobile app working group that is looking at a strategy for developing apps and a Center for Applied Technology where people can get hands on with different technologies. We will leverage those for a lot of internal collaboration as we go forward.
L.W.: What we are doing is building Census.gov as a platform -- whether it is through mobile apps, APIs, or interactive apps. We are in alignment with the digital strategy and we are working to create a customer centric, information centric environment.
Photo: Corbis Images
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