Making Public Websites Accessible for Mobile Users

Have you ever chaperoned a trip with a bunch of seventh-graders texting the person right next to them on a bus? Have you ever sat in a group of 30-somethings updating their Facebook accounts while watching a live sporting event? Have you ever witnessed your spouse texting your kids to come to the dinner table? This is the new world in which we live.

From the perspective of a government agency providing services to the public, it is the scariest of all worlds. How can we possibly satisfy the needs of consumers who expect information -- and interaction -- to be available wherever they are, at any hour of the day or night?

Traditionally, government customer service was provided by responding in person at an office counter, preparing and sending information by mail, and answering countless phone calls. Then new forms of communication emerged, requiring new ways of providing information and services by e-mail and on websites and blogs. As communication continued to evolve with the advent of new media, many government agencies began communicating with citizens and providing services through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Now, mobile access has become the new face of government service.

Mobile access to communications and the web is growing in popularity generally, and it is already the No. 1 preference of the next generation of voters and taxpayers. Shipments of smartphones are already outpacing sales of PCs, according to IDC. Governments will soon face a new and difficult decision: Should they keep trying to pull citizens into existing communication channels or reach out to constituents wherever they are, on their terms, making it easier for people to get what they need, when and where they need it?

The thought of developing yet another new strategy for delivering information and services can be daunting, particularly in a challenging economy. The good news is that agile governments have become adept at adapting to the ever-changing landscape of government service delivery.

Here in Oakland County, Mich., we have been preparing for this latest communication revolution, and we've seen that it might not be so scary after all. As with most technology initiatives, good project planning can go a long way toward calming fears.

One of the most critical planning points in a mobile-access initiative is determining how to support a variety of mobile devices operating on multiple platforms. Oakland County took a phased approach when moving website content into the mobile world.

First, we engaged the assistance of several Michigan State University students through a special undergraduate degree capstone project. The students helped to develop a mobile-services strategy that provided a roadmap for our initial foray into mobile-website development. The project also helped to prioritize the information our residents, visitors and business people most wanted to see optimized for mobile devices. We also created a plan for readying website content for access by a multitude of devices and platforms.

Our first mobile-optimized site included a text-based interface that delivered quick access to a selection of information from the county's full website. Content was chosen according to the priorities identified by mobile users in a public survey. The initial text-based mobile site was successful, and usage grew steadily over time. As the mobile marketplace continued to evolve, smartphones and other devices featuring touch-screen interfaces grew in popularity. In order to move further into the mobile space, we set out to create a new mobile site that could serve a greater number of mobile users.

In October 2010, we launched our Mobile Touch site to rave reviews. Mobile users now have a convenient way to access Oakland County government in an environment designed for touch-screen navigation and browsing. Mobile Touch is a multiplatform service that is optimized for access on iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Droid platforms, covering the majority of the current market. This level of platform independence also creates flexibility in the delivery model, as there are no applications that must be loaded on the device. Mobile users also have the option to choose between the touch-screen version, a text-based site or the full website.

Last, this new environment allows for very rich content to be delivered on the mobile device. Not only can users direct-dial Oakland County government phone numbers from the mobile site, but they can also watch high-definition videos from the Oakland County Media Center and take advantage of interactive mapping.

Oakland County's Mobile Touch site is meeting the needs of our constituents and helping to connect more people with government. With an eye to the future, our next major hurdle will be to keep up with the ever-evolving world of citizen engagement -- reaching people wherever they are, providing the communication options they find most useful. As mobile devices become the dominant force in communication, it is a safe bet that technology will continue to change and grow. Whatever the future holds, governments must be prepared to keep pace with emerging communication channels.

When implemented thoughtfully and with a plan, new technology can enhance government service delivery -- and make the challenges of tomorrow just a little less scary.

Feb 24 2011