Smartphones, and their mobile applications are quickly becoming ubiquitous. The technological adoption of the mobile Internet (smartphones) mirrors that of the television during the 1940s and the Internet during the 1990s. Meaning, rapid adoption. The message for the U.S. federal government is clear – make your websites and data mobile accessible.
The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) maintains USA.gov and a listing of mobile applications built by federal agencies. I plan to review a different mobile app each week. For the first review, I’ll start with an app that I know quite well, the Transportation Security Administration’s “My TSA” mobile web and iPhone app.
The MyTSA app was launched in time for the Fourth of July travel rush in 2010. The launch was timed so that it was part of the initial launch of apps.usa.gov – the Mobile Apps site for the USA.gov portal.
There are currently two versions of the app, an iPhone (Apple iOS) version and a “mobile web” version that will work with all devices that have a web browser. TSA currently is working on an Android version but no availability date has been released by the agency. This review is based on the latest (iOS) 1.2.2 version of MyTSA.
TSA realized that many travelers have questions about the airport security process and rules while they are traveling or en route to an airport. So the MyTSA app was conceived to be a “trusted traveler’s companion”. MyTSA provides real-time operating status for U.S. airports from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); a tool to find out if an item is allowed in your carry-on or checked baggage; information on ID requirements, liquids rules, and tips for packing and dressing to speed through security.
The home screen of the app contains a wealth of information in an attractively designed layout. A nifty feature of the iPhone version is that it automatically geo-locates the nearest major airport and brings up FAA airport delays, TSA security checkpoint wait times and current weather conditions and temperature. Based on user feedback, TSA added a “Settings” page whereby you can choose to geo-locate to either the closest major airport (default), the closest airport (includes all mid and small airports) or you can set your favorite airport to always appear on the home screen.
The “Status” feature shows airport delays either in a List view or a map view using a Google Maps mash-up. You can pinch-and-zoom to drill down to a specific geographical area. Zooming in on the map view brings up all 450+ airports.
A very popular feature is the “Can I Bring?” which lets you search for any item to see what the security policy is regarding the item. TSA added a type-ahead (predictive searching) feature to help users correctly spell the item. Currently there are over 3,400 items listed in the “Can I Bring?” database (all of which have the correct spelling). If you search for an item not in the database you have an opportunity to submit the item as a suggestion for TSA to add it to its database. Considering that TSA started with around 800 items during the initial launch, the vast bulk of the items in the database are from passenger suggestions. This has turned out to be a great method to crowd-source a database of searchable items.
Another popular feature is the “Guide” which contains guidance on topics such as acceptable IDs, liquids, special medical needs, helpful tips on packing and what to wear, traveling with food, traveling with children and a section on the new TSA imaging technologies.
Experienced travelers appreciate the “Wait Times” feature that shows recent passenger submitted security checkpoint wait times. As these wait times represent crowd-sourced content, the data tends to be spotty. As the displayed data is limited to the latest 25 times over the past 30 days, some airports only have a few listed times. This feature will grow in usefulness as more people use the app. TSA architected the backend web service in such a way to allow third-party app providers to contribute wait times directly from their own mobile apps.
A recent update from TSA includes a few new features. There are now embedded videos – streamed from YouTube – so you better have a WiFi connection as the video performance over 3G is not that great. Videos include a welcome message from TSA Administrator John Pistole, information about Advanced Imaging Technology and other useful tips to take the stress out of your checkpoint experience.
Current weather conditions and a seven day weather forecast are now part of the application. The weather screens are very attractive and easy to use. TSA uses the iOS “pagers” feature to swipe through the weekly forecast. The weather information is pulled directly from live feeds maintained by NOAA’s National Weather Service. I find myself using the MyTSA app each morning just to get a good local weather forecast. This feature alone makes the app a worthwhile download.
One of the cool elements of this app is how TSA cleanly integrates open government data from the FAA, NOAA and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). The BTS provides airport on-time performance statistics which TSA uses to show percentages of flight delays for arrivals and departures and the reasons for the delays. Perhaps a motivating factor for this data is that very few of the aircraft delays are because of security. Most of the delays are because of air traffic, carrier or late aircraft.
The MyTSA app has been prominently featured and mentioned on the White House webpage for Open Government Initiatives, the Campaign to Cut Waste, and the White House Blog post, “Top 10 Must-Have Government Apps”. In addition to kudo’s from the White House, “My TSA” was named Best Government Mobile App from the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) at its 9th Annual Excellence.Gov Awards event in Washington, D.C. in March 2011.
InformationWeek recognized TSA as one of the Top 15 Government IT Innovators during the 23rd annual InformationWeek 500 Conference in September 2011. TSA was recognized for the deployment and enhancement of the My TSA mobile application.