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7/2/2010
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USA.gov Adds Mobile Apps

The federal government looks to engage citizens in new ways with an enhanced site including Microsoft Bing-powered search.

Need to find government services? Soon, there will be an app for that. On Friday, the federal government launched major revisions to the main federal government website, USA.gov, including a mobile application section.

"The government recognizes that the American people, the way they want to access government services, is no longer just on a website or in an office, but on mobile devices too," federal CIO Vivek Kundra said in a meeting with reporters this week.

Several new mobile apps have been released on the site, including:

Alternative Fuel Locator, which shows users a map of nearby sources of charging stations, natural gas, and hydrogen for cars fueled by something other than gasoline.

Product Recalls, which provides users with real-time updates on product recalls and allows users to scan UPC codes with their cameras to see if items have been subject to a recall.

MyTSA, which shows wait times at TSA checkpoints in airports and other pertinent information for air travelers.

Other mobile applications already made available by the government, such as the FBI's Most Wanted application and postal app USPS Mobile, are also available through USA.gov. "Part of this is to aggregate all the government's mobile apps into a single place," Kundra said. A spreadsheet on USA.gov lists a total of 111 mobile apps, though many aren't available to the public, are in development, or are just mobile websites.

The government will focus on making its mobile apps available for popular mobile platforms, including Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry, and is discussing with platform providers the possibility of adding "government" categories to their application stores, Kundra said.

Access to data plays a large part in the Obama administration's open government plans, but for now, third-party applications won't be available on USA.gov, due to some possible policy and legal obstacles, according to Kundra. "We're deliberating it," he said.

Mobile applications are only one part of the new USA.gov, which was meant to be the primary portal to all government online services and websites, but which hasn't seen a major makeover in almost a decade.

"It's essentially just a collection of links with a bunch of pictures shown up there," said Office of Management and Budget deputy director and federal chief performance officer Jeffrey Zients. "It was built a decade ago and engineered for the bureaucracy, not for the American people."

Search plays a starring role in the new USA.gov, which was built by the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies under the direction of GSA associate administrator Dave McClure.

The search engine on USA.gov is now powered by Microsoft Bing and Microsoft's enterprise search technology. The search engine has an auto-complete function, and queries bring up, in addition to results, related searches, forms, and questions and answers.

According to Zients, the changes come down to an effort to improve citizen trust in government by improving the experience of interacting with the government. "Trust in government has plummeted over the last few decades," he said. "About two-thirds of Americans believe that when something is run by government, it's usually inefficient. All the research shows the best way to change perception is through actual interaction with government."

For example, the new site points directly to popular government services, like an improved online passport service that allows people to apply for passports online, report stolen passports, change their name, and track passport processing times.

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