Informed public goal of expanding government apps

By Dustin Barnes/The Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON — More government agencies are making the smart move to phones, opting to utilize mobile app technology to connect with constituents.

From updating the public on official business to promoting tourism in Mississippi, the broad range of uses for these apps has been noted by state and local officials as a vital tool in staying connected and relevant to residents.

“We are always looking for ways in which we can provide information to the public,” said Michael Guest, district attorney for Madison and Rankin counties.

Guest and his office recently launched a mobile app to keep residents up-to-date on what’s going on with cases and criminals, he said.

Additional features link the public to the DA’s Most Wanted list, the state’s sex offender registry and Crimestoppers, Guest added.

State agencies have been exploring the uses of mobile apps, with several launched over the last year.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation launched its traffic app in the fall, said Acey Roberts, an MDOT traffic engineer.

The app allows users to access video through the MDOT camera website, as well as all the other information accessible on the site, said Roberts.

“It’s cleaner than with the website,” he said of the smartphone app.

The traffic app also uses push notification technology, Roberts said. “It will tell you how close you are as you approach an accident.”

The day-to-day utility of such apps are just a portion of what the technology can do for the state. Reaching across state lines, some apps are promoting the state’s rich culture to tourists.

True South is an app that connects Mississippians and tourists with 439 of the state’s most beloved attractions, said Jennifer Spann, spokeswoman with the Mississippi Development Authority, which launched the program two years ago.

“It’s basically to help us promote the hidden treasures in the state,” said Spann. “Of course we have way more than 439 attractions around the state, but these are local favorites.”

Spann said before the app’s launch, Mississippians were interviewed about their favorite attractions such as eateries, things to do and places to see.

Looking ahead, Spann said she would like to build on the app and highlight more attractions and connect tourists and residents with other must-see sites in the state.

Spann said MDA also worked very closely with the Mississippi Blues Commission that runs the Mississippi Blues Trail app.

Features with the blues app allow users to scan the QR codes on existing blues marker signs throughout the state in order to access more information about the featured artists, said Spann.

The app accesses timelines, videos of the artist’s music and information on the artist’s life, she added. As more markers are set up in the state, that app is updated.

Keeping the state’s citizens up-to-date is why the state approved a contract with Mississippi Interactive, LLC in late 2010.

The company — a subsidiary of NIC — provides electronic payment processing for the state, according to a press release on the company’s website. Services are funded through transaction fees assessed during online payments to state agencies, and this self-funded model means the eGovernment business is funded without using appropriated taxpayer dollars.

Through a public and private partnership, Mississippi Interactive is tasked with maintaining the state’s official website and creating smartphone apps for different agencies, said Deanna Gronlie, general manager of the company.

Included in their work, the company also put out MS.gov, an app that mirrors the function of the official website through offering contact information and services of the state government, said Gronlie.

The app was launched just under a year ago, Gronlie said. Each year the app — along with the state website — is refreshed, she said.

Mississippi Interactive has partnered with other state agencies to develop their apps, said Gronlie. And there are two agencies that are asking for an Android-friendly app.

“On the next update, the apps will be available on any mobile device,” said Gronlie. That update is scheduled for May or June.

Guest said his office’s app already is available on both major smartphone formats, while other statewide agencies who maintain their own apps have said they are looking at expanding into the Android market.

Meanwhile, costs associated with writing and upkeep on the smartphone apps aren’t breaking the bank.

MS.gov and other apps run by Mississippi Interactive are included in the self-funded model. Other agencies are finding ways to operate with minimum to low costs.

“We have a full (information technology) team at MDOT,” said Roberts. “They were able to do it all in-house.”

Guest said it took his office about six months to plan and perfect its app. The total cost was around $1,200, and that was done by a local company. The final cost includes the creation and upkeep of the app.

The tally, he said, is worth the outcome.

“It is amazing what the younger generation can do with social media,” said Guest. “I do believe that — not only with this app but with Facebook and Twitter — this is a great way for the DA’s office to get this out to the public.

“Our goal is we continue to be accessible to everyone.”