Quick, tell me what the US Fish and Wildlife Service does. Keep going. I'll bet the list gets pretty long before you include "publishes apps."
Publishing apps for smartphones and tablets is just what the service has begun doing, though, and the latest brings together the interests of an archeologist dismayed at under-used resources and the skills of a development company with experience in building map-based apps. The result is a guide to finding locations with lots of recreation possibility and very little public awareness.
Eugene Marino is a service archeologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). When I spoke with him before the holidays, he explained how he came to be interested in the idea of building an app:
I had recently gotten an iPad and was checking the App store for apps on museums, archaeology and recreation. I found the original app designed by the developer we ended up working with and it had a bunch of public lands, but it lacked wildlife refuges. I thought that, if we could add refuges, it would be a great way to highlight historical resources.
It struck Marino that the wildlife refuges were significantly under-appreciated -- something that became clear to him when he was looking for something to do with his family one weekend and realized that he had no convenient way to learn about the location and features of refuges that he knew were in his area. He decided that the service could use a "virtual visitor's guide" for potential visitors who could see that there are actually interesting things to do at refuges -- and that refuges are more common than most people think. The result was MyRefuge, the latest smartphone app from the FWS.
When I asked Marino about his role in developing the app, he said that his position was carefully defined. "I was on the conceptual level. The coding and technical stuff was already in place and we were able to take the existing structure and make it work specifically for the refuge system," he said. Marino said that the developer, Zaia Design, had existing map and point of interest applications so the main task was helping them use publicly-available information to build an application that was targeted toward the refuge system. Helping the developer understand the attractions within the refuge system was the heart of Marino's role.
Listening to Marino describe the process for building the app, I expressed amazement that this service, one that I associate with, well, fish and furry animals, was involved in high-tech smartphone apps. He said that mine was a common perception, but one that is sadly out of date. "I think we are a high tech service," he said. "MyRefuge was the first thing I saw out there from a national perspective, but we have other apps -- we have an app for Ding Darling that was developed by the Friends [of Ding Darling] group, and other apps that are in the works now."
Marino pointed out that developing apps is new for the FWS, but that it's also new for everyone. In the entire Department of Interior apps have only been developed for the public in the last year. He said that the nature of the app development community means that developers are looking at publicly available information regarding public lands and that, "...now the agency is looking at getting involved with steering what an app from the agency would look like."
I asked Marino why FWS had decided to partner with an app developer rather than build the app internally, and he said that it boiled down to making the best use of available resources. "I think that it's probably much more efficient to have one or two apps that the FWS calls its own but to connect with developers and let developers use the public information we have and get that message out to the public for most apps," he said.
Marino explained, "There are things we could do ourselves, but it might not be the most efficient use of time and funding. Partnerships and connections between the tech community and the messaging that FWS does already get information out quickly and at the lowest cost to taxpayers."
I've downloaded MyRefuge and I'm looking forward to using it to plan future trips. What do you think: Is a partnership the most efficient way to go for developing apps? What should the developers bring to the partnership? And what apps would you like to see come out of the Federal Government? I've already started my list...