I’ve been talking to some folks today about mobile government. That, sadly, is not a government that moves faster in the right direction, but the next iteration of online services delivered via mobile phones. The big questions were around what will government do, how will it do it and what might make it mess up.
I delivered a presentation on this a while ago and since then have been refining my thinking a little. I haven’t really got much past what we might do in the next year or so, preferring to leave the private sector to blaze a trail that we might follow. Government is not good at leading in the technology space and I’m not sure that this is a good place to start.
There’s a big opportunity for us to use mobile phones (which have something like an 80% penetration in the UK now) for quick notifications and alerts, “your house is in the flood plain and there’s a big storm coming”, “your passport is ready for collection” or “we’re short of blood in the donor bank and you haven’t given blood for 12 months, now’s a great time” or something like that. There may even be the opportunity for a bit of dialogue, “you have a hospital appointment tomorrow at noon, can you still make it” coupled with a bit of to and fro to confirm the time. I’ve also talked in the past about some location based services like “the streetlight where I’m standing is out”, “there’s an abandoned car outside my house” and so on – simple to implement and, if done right, likely to attract traffic. Clearly, we’re invading people’s personal devices here – we’re pushing content for probably the first time online – and that means we have to be careful about what we send, when we send it and what we do next.
What worries me though is that we’ll repeat what we have done with websites – built lots of them – and establish 101 (or, more likely, 1001) services via mobile, but all with different phone numbers, preference settings and places to register. It’s bad enough that I have to remember URLs, but how bad would it be if I have to remember the text phone number of my hospital, my doctor, my tax office, my flood warning service? That means there’s a real, important and urgent need for some strategic thinking here. How do we set up a single “preferences” page where you can register for the services you want to receive and how you want to receive them – via mobile, via email, via voice and so on? That way, you know where to go to change your preference, all the services are collated so it will be simple to remember and you can quickly turn services on or off (if government gets push wrong and starts to annoy you with regular texts).
On top of that, we need some thinking on “what is a government mobile phone number?”. It’s easy with URLs. I’m pretty sure that only government can register something in the “.gov.uk” space, but uncertain what a government phone number would look like? Would we spell out g-o-v-e-r-n-m-e-n-t on the keyboard (something that might make sense in the USA where words as numbers is common)? Would we use a simple number like 888 or 777? How would we handle replies to that number and know where to route the text? There’s a lot to cover there.
Finally, to make these services really work, I think we’re going to have to do some real partnership work with the mobile phone providers. Ideally you’d want something in the phone menu that was already setup as “government services” so that people knew where to look and didn’t have to do any configuration. At the same time, we’d have to do some work on who pays for the messages to and fro – for a few texts that’s not a lot of money, but if we latch onto something big, a few million 5p messages could mount up pretty fast.
Meanwhile, any day now the UK will see real 3G phones on the loose. I wandered into a Hutchison shop the other day and put my order in. Meanwhile, the US has finally started to catch up with UK phone technology and, as Dan Gillmor notes, you can get a P800 or even a Nokia 3650 (horrible keyboard, what were you thinking?). I’m up for a P800 as my triband phone and will plump for an NEC 606 as my 3G phone. So sorry Nokia, after more years than I can remember as a customer, you’re about to lose me for good. I’m looking forward to seeing how video calls work, what the location based services could really do and, importantly, to playing what looked like some really good games at last. I’m fed up with Bounce, the only game on my 6610.