Time for Australian government to wake up to mobile?

Less than a quarter of the Australian Government’s regular websites can be considered smartphone or mobile-friendly, according to a survey conducted by iTnews.

A survey by the ITNews concludes that government Websites fail mobile access tests. Actually, lets be specific:

  • They surveyed 21 Australian federal Australian government, plus the mobile version of USA.gov.
  • They used two specific testing tools, a W3C tool based on standards developed in 2008 and another that looks like it was designed to test to baseline of phones like the Nokia 6680 (from 2005).

Personally I think this makes the test results pretty limited, but worth discussing.

(A more recent evaluation tool is Google’s Ready to Go Mo, although I’m not entirely clear what standards it is based on.)

Now, there are some very good examples of government in Australia using mobile. One example that comes to mind (because I used it the other day) is NSW’s live traffic reports site – it comes in desktop, mobile and iOS versions.

Sticking with transport, in some states it is now possible to renew your car registration electronically using a smartphone. So clearly, mobile is being actively utilised as a channel by government. Front-end Websites are just one aspect of government communication and service delivery.

Being realistic about government budget cycles and priorities, I see a couple of issues:

Firstly, the Federal government is currently focused on updating their Web channels to be WCAG 2.0 compliant. One thing I would like to highlight is that WCAG 2.0 is technology agnostic – its actually all about the end-user:

“mobile accessibility is making web content accessible to people with disabilities in the mobile context. This includes users with visual, mobility, hearing and cognitive impairments as well as older users.”

Second, the rise of mobile and demand from consumers (i.e. citizens and other stakeholders) for mobile access in all spheres of life is moving much faster than government planning and technology development cycles – see the latest Australian data from Google [PDF].

So what should government do? Be strategic about mobile:

The agencies and departments that should be thinking about this most are those that have a service delivery element or are involved in public education. The new work in the area of eHealth immediately comes to mind. In the US, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports there that:

“Among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.”

I’m sure we would see similar patterns here. Just within my family and social circle I know lots of young adults outside of my industry that only use wireless mobile devices for Internet access a home.

Do you need an app? Do you need a mobile Website? What do mobile users need from your agency? Do your e-government applications work on mobile?

However, at all levels of government they need to start thinking about the impact of mobile. I’m worried about government sites that have just been redevelopment or are about to be redeveloped. They need to think about medium term strategies for mobile.

Also, when setting budgets, the allocation between ‘desktop’ and ‘mobile’ need to be re-evaluated. A mobile first strategy for some departments could actually be a source of savings in the long term, as they focus on content that really counts.

This is a challenge and government needs to respond. But lets look at this in a smart way. I mean, does it really matter in the short term if the mobile experience of treasury.gov.au isn’t that great?

In the much longer term, I’d like to see government move towards a completely different Web mobile. But that’s a subject for another post!

UPDATE: A great example from the National Library of Australia, who have adopted a proactive strategy – they say in their introduction:

Where opportunity exists, conceptual leaders stand ready and eager to innovate. The mobile web provides superb food for innovation, as evidenced by the immersive Ludwig II app by the Bavarian State Library, which includes augmented reality features like 3D pattern recognition so that historical digital objects appear on the mobile screen, triggered by the physical location of the user.

It’s also demonstrated by NASA, who created a mobile portal to learning about space through their latest images from space, video, news and social media activity. The Eyewitness app acts as a showcase for the best photography featured in the Observer and the Guardian. It showcases the 100 most recent and topical images and includes ‘pro tips’ from the photographers. And it’s seen in Biblion, the New York Public Library scholarly journal reborn as a “multi-linear immersive experience” for the iPad. The inaugural edition (2011) delivers manuscript material, images, films, audio, and essays on the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

Importantly, the achievements of these institutions have been realised against a backdrop of economic hardship and a substantial reduction in funding for cultural and research institutions around the world.

Hat tip to Craig.

UPDATE #2: iTnews reports on AGIMO’s response at a recent Senate estimates hearing, that mobile is something they are looking at but its not a priority. This issue of accessibility was raised, reflecting somewhat my comments above.

I also discovered that DFAT’s Smartraveller site has a mobile optimised version, which is a good example of targeting a specific need. DFAT previously scored a ‘bad’ rating in iTnews’ survey of federal sites. When I ran the mobile version of Smartraveller through the same tests, it performed badly too, which really makes me question the original iTnews piece again. It rated much better on Google’s test (4 out of 5 as a publisher).

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3 thoughts on “Time for Australian government to wake up to mobile?

  1. I think it’s a little misleading to say that the Federal Government is focused on updating their Web channels to be WCAG 2.0 compliant. That’s only one of the issues that the Federal Government and all other governments are facing – and one of them is coping with a diversity of channels.

  2. Channel fragmentation is a real issue for all organisations engaging the public – not just government.There are lessons to learn from all kinds of places (and if another public servant tells me that corporations have plenty of money for their websites…. it’s simply not the case!)Mobile is an important channel, however can be easily managed through use of modern Content Management Systems, which support it out-of-the-box and simply need a little templating. What is interesting to watch is the discussion as to whether the chicken or egg should lead. Do governments wait until they see x% or more of their web traffic from mobile devices, or do they create mobile sites and then promote them to increase usage?And how does this differ from, say, agencies supporting people on legacy web browsers (such as IE6) where they receive lower traffic from that browser than they do from mobile? Interesting times! Fortunately good government agencies can walk, talk AND chew gum at the same time, meaning they can deal with multiple priorities and legal requirements at once, not simply one at a time.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Kerry & Craig. WCAG does appear to be getting a lot of attention (which is good), but I mentioned it because the focus appears to be about compliance of desktop Websites and not the wider Web channel. If agencies are smart, they can use Web content management systems that support the mobile. But considering many government sites don’t even switch on RSS then its possible that requirement will have been or will be overlooked if not explicitly called out. And yes, this isn’t an issue for government alone but the procurement cycle is different and less responsive to consumer demand.

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