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Mobile Framework to Support USGS Science

By Tim Kern and Lorna A. Schmid

Diagram showing the four phases of mobile product workflow
More information about the lifecycle approach to mobile development is available from the Mobile Community Site. Image created as part of the USGS Mobile Framework.
Young man using image recognition though a mobile device to identify features in the field.
Using image recognition though a mobile device to identify features in the field.
Photo credit: Lance Everette, USGS Fort Collins Science Center
Mobile/tablet version of a field data collection form.
Mobile/tablet version of a field data collection form.

In May 2012, the White House released its Digital Government Strategy. This document specifically directed the launch of shared mobile application development programs designed to help agencies develop secure, device-agnostic mobile applications; provide a development test environment to streamline app delivery; foster code-sharing; and validate official government applications.

The Community for Data Integration (CDI) anticipated this need, funding the development of a USGS Mobile Applications Development Support Framework in FY 2012. This effort sought to help USGS technical staff and project managers acquire technical resources to complete a project as well as conform to existing Agency, Department, and government policies during mobile applications development.

Led by Lorna Schmid, the Mobile Framework Working Group considered multiple user stories from project managers, scientists, and software developers and mapped these stories to the Digital Government Strategy shared development program mandate (in italics):

  • Projects often develop custom software to help them approach novel science needs. These projects need resources to help them with software code review and assessment (develop secure, device-agnostic mobile applications).
  • Scientists often employ student, contract, and consulting staff to assist with software development. Scientists need to be able to review a library of similar projects and point their development staff at the source code behind these projects (foster code-sharing).
  • Projects built on custom software need to navigate a minefield of Federal policy requirements. This includes Terms of Service (TOS) Agreements, Personally Identifiable Information (PII) review, Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) requirements, and USGS Fundamental Science Practices (FSP). The development community needs to quickly find out which, if any, of these policies apply to their project (validate official government applications).
  • Software development means version control, support test platforms for device-agnostic development, configuration management, and research technical approaches to difficult problems. Establishing project-specific development environments can be inefficient and costly and can slow a project to a crawl. A project manager needs to know where these resources already exist, and how to quickly take advantage of these resources (provide a development test environment to streamline app delivery; develop secure, device-agnostic mobile applications).
  • Once a software project has been built, it needs a straightforward roadmap to product review, approval, and release (validate official government applications).

To address these stories, the Mobile Framework Working Group designed a draft workflow and started building a number of resources to help project managers and developers make better decisions on project design and implementation. The workflow consists of four distinct sections, with one phase flowing into the next.

  1. Ideation considers the development and exploration of the science concept and identifies the types of technologies the concept may employ.
  2. Development includes the steps needed to build an application or deploy a science support capability. This section of the workflow is focused on both software professionals and project managers.
  3. Review and Approval provides the steps for product review and approval prior to distribution, a critical step to meet the "validate official government applications" criteria of the Digital Government Strategy.
  4. Publication and Monitoring provides the USGS with a view into how the particular science support capabilities are being used.

Visit the USGS Mobile Community Site and read up on the journey undertaken to build the Mobile Framework. Of note, the team worked through a policy morass to obtain approval from the Department of the Interior on the TOS and support of the methods laid out in the Mobile Framework. Other accomplishments include acquiring Apple and Android development licenses for USGS projects to deploy native mobile applications, establishing a source code repository for mobile efforts, and acquiring tools to review applications for security exploits and policy compliance.