Everyone remembers their first mobile app. For many, like me, it might have been a trivial application. I recall the oohs and aahs over the first Starbucks finder. The result might have been less than earth-shaking, but it was a hint of what was possible when location data and location-award devices combined with other databases.
Today mobile apps for the enterprise have become integral parts of many agencies’ suites of tools. The government has been encouraging this with its digital and mobile strategies, and with its public challenges and code-a-thons such as those conducted by the Federal Communications Commission.
Sometimes, an event or occurrence prompts an agency to realize the need for a specific mobile app. Such was the case for the Customs and Border Protection bureau at the Homeland Security Department. The developers of the app were awarded a Service to America Medal in the annual competition sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service.
Nael Samha is a program manager in the Office of Technology at CBP. He worked with an officer, Thomas Roland, Jr., who is a program manager in the Office of Field Operations. The so-called underwear bomber, or would-be bomber, made CBP agents realize they needed much faster, on-the-spot access to the various law enforcement and national security databases the agency uses to evaluate people standing before them in border crossings. It was one of many border security reforms the December 2009 incident touched off.
Samha said he was used to developing standard client-server applications, but now mobile app development is part of the day-to-day repertoire.
“The technology has started to catch up to the users’ ideas and the need for information anywhere,” he said. “With smartphones people are looking into real time information, and they’re easy to use. The requirement is applications available in a global fashion.”
The winning application works on smartphones. It is browser based, as opposed to the pure app model. Samha said there are pros and cons to both styles of applications.
Developers can create web-based apps faster, and they work across all of the major platforms. “The cons,” he said “can be the user experience.” Unless the web display is optimized for a small screen, web interfaces can be clumsy to navigate because everything is shrunken. Individual actions, such as filling in a field, often require magnification to accomplish.
Native apps “give you better visuals and performance, but take longer to develop. And you need a version for each device,” Samha said. If starting from scratch, the IT organization may need a year before the final app is deployed.
Regardless of the technical approach, mobile apps are no different from any other applications when it comes to management. Specifically, an organized way of making sure the customer requirements are accurately reflected in what gets developed. At CPB, Samha said, the technical staff has good relations with the users, marked by lots of communication. Here’s how the award write-up describes the results:
“Deployed so far at 10 airports overseas and at dozens of U.S. land border crossings, the device has enabled CBP personnel to identify illegal aliens, narcotics traffickers, weapons smugglers, currency violators, individuals with outstanding arrest warrants and potential terror suspects in real-time.”
Samha joined Homeland Security five years ago. For most of his career he was a network engineer. Before joining government he worked at Unisys and CSC.
In the case of the database app, development was smoothed by the fact that the techies were creating more of an extension of an existing desktop application rather than something brand new. That doesn’t mean the app has less value, though. Samha pointed out that in some remote ports of entry, agencies lack wireline broadband so there may not be desktop access. Using a smartphone in these locations offers a lot more speed and convenience to agents than, say, a standard notebook PC equipped with a wireless broadband modem.
Samha said that his staff will next develop database access mobile applications for cargo screening and for seaports and airports. The initial effort has given him some insight into smartphone, mobility and their limitations. For instance, the BlackBerry browser has become adequate relative to Google Chrome or Apple Safari, but it remains the most secure. CBP agents still mostly use BlackBerries, but the agency is starting to evaluate the Android and iOS platforms.
Samha would also like to see improved search functions in mobile devices. Also better tools for biometric identification, since nearly all smartphones lack any sort of biometric input capability.