Government Technology

Are iOS and Android Devices Good Enough for Government Work?

January 30, 2012 By

On Christmas Day 2011, more than 6.8 million Android and iOS devices were activated, according to an article on Time magazine’s Techland news site. That eclipsed the previous single-day record of 2.8 million activations on Christmas Day 2010.

As goes the consumer, so goes government — at least in regard to how the public wants to access Web-based services and transactions. And while that statistic has implications for public-sector websites and transactions, the move to mobile devices doesn’t stop there: Local government employees are bringing their “stocking stuffers” to work, and want to use them to access email, calendaring or even the entire network.

Compared to the locked-down BlackBerrys used by some public executives, the new devices can respond to spoken instructions, help navigate through traffic to a meeting, even dance, sing and order pizza.

The move to integrate one’s personal device into local government operations is called variously “bring your own device” or “bring your own technology” (BYOD/T). The advantages of allowing employee-owned devices for work-related activities include the savings. The government doesn’t buy the devices or pay for a data plan, and if the device is lost it’s not the government’s problem as long as there is no confidential data residing in the device.

There are risks as well, and an upcoming special section of Government Technology will explore those in greater detail. However, in the course of talking to local government CIOs and staff, we came across some concerns as to the suitability of the new generation of devices for front-line government use.

Riverside, Calif., CIO Steve Reneker, for example, likes the iPad but has some reservations. “It’s a great consumer device, but it’s not yet well suited for business environments due to security issues, and an inability to run business applications in the Microsoft world, specifically a lot of browser-based applications — Flash, things like that just make reading email and attachments impractical,” he said. “So even if you have an iPad, you still need a Microsoft device to be able to read all your content and to be productive.” Reneker said that different uses may require different sized screens, or a regular keyboard.

Several people mentioned that speed with which mobile devices are evolving could become a burden on support staff. Roy Stone, a system support specialist for Long Beach, Calif., said that even mundane tasks like adding a printer or moving files require tech support, and having more than a basic working knowledge of most desktop applications is nearly a full-time job. Adding an array of software, hardware and operating systems, said Stone, could overburden support staff. “I believe BYOD is inevitable,” he said. “But so will be the addition of more tech support personnel.”

Corpus Christi, Texas, has a 147-square-mile Wi-Fi system, said city CIO Michael Armstrong, and about 15-20 iPads are in use, most of which are city-owned. “It’s a tremendous tool, if your job involves consuming information,” he said. “But they’re not really good production devices.”

The city, however, is starting to make GIS available on the iPad and will equip a number of field supervisors with the devices. Since there is citywide Wi-Fi, said Armstrong, they city doesn’t need to buy iPads with the 3G setup. “They stay within our own system when they are doing mobile work. So we’re not going through the public switch to do that.”

Armstrong said the first thing the city puts on each iPad is Dropbox, which makes documents available anywhere on any machine. Armstrong said he uses Dropbox instead of Apple’s iCloud because iCloud is Apple-centric, whereas Dropbox is compatible with iOS, Android and Windows. “iCloud doesn’t run on Android,” said Armstrong, “and will run on Windows, but you have to go through iTunes.” He says iCloud has some nice features, including  5 GB of free storage/ (Dropbox only offers 2 GB of free storage.) But Dropbox will run on virtually anything. “If I had multiple Apple devices, I might switch,” he said, “but I run iOS, Android and Windows; Dropbox works just fine on all.”

Armstrong said Corpus Christi is still using Blackberrys and ruggedized laptops for field workers. “We haven’t really trusted the iPad in that environment, because it’s not built for a ruggedized environment,” he said. “It will be interesting to see what Windows 8 does with the Windows tablet.”

At Issue: Are consumer wireless devices suitable for government work? Do you have experiences with them pro or con? Contact Wayne Hanson with your comments.

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Jeff Brown    |    Commented January 31, 2012

I hear stories of court proceedings where personal devices or personal computers were siezed because they were used to access the employer's network. When a device is used for work and home, lawsuits related to personal or professional conduct can result in siezure to "search for evidence of wrongdoing". This suggests that a device with sensitive company data on it could be seized and investigated for a personal court proceeding, or a device with personal information on it could be seized as part of a professional investigation. Imagine the possibilties.

Arthur Preiser    |    Commented January 31, 2012

First, I do think there are security issues that need to be addressed. For example, should you require someone who brings his/her own device to enable "Erase Data" in the event the device is lost, stolen or seized? If you require a password, how strong should it be, 4 digit numerical or 8 character minimum? Are you legally allowed to remotely wipe a device in the event the court seizes it? What if the user reported it stolen when it was actually seized, who is responsible if the data is erased? Second, I don't understand the consumption versus production argument. Anyone who thinks tables like the iPad or Xoom cannot produce information is poorly informed. I produce or edit a large number of documents on my iPad. I take notes in meetings that can be instantly shared with others. I create tasks and calendar events while attending meetings, so before we leave, I have a plan in place to get to work. I no longer need to duplicate my paper notes into electronic format and then disseminate any relevant information to my team, it's all ready to go when I leave the meeting. Finally, I think the idea of IT staff having to learn a bunch of new platforms is a little overblown. It’s really only iOS and Android. Once Android unifies their OS, it will make for a small learning curve. The mobile train is coming through the station, either get on board, or get out of the way.

Dawn Bullwinkel    |    Commented January 31, 2012

I disagree with the article's contributor from Riverside. I have gone nearly 100% paperless using a few apps that absolutely give me full use of microsoft applications (Word, Excel, powerpoint in particular. The syncing between my mobile devices and my desktop work areas (awesome note, evernote, dropbox) has given me incredible efficiency and increased my productivity; which in these times is critical. While security concerns are important, it is unwise to "lock" government workers out of the mobile world. The boat has left the doc and we just need to make sure that everyone can get on board safely. Our City is actually holding informal SPAs (Specialized Productivity Assistance)with mobile users because there isn't one size fits all solutions. Go Mobility and efficiency!

Robert K    |    Commented February 3, 2012

Good enough? I don't like that term. iPad, I would endorse. Android devices - never. Anytime I see the words "Good Enough" defining a security issue, I cringe. Good enough is never enough!

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