VA moves mobile from concept to reality with veteran homelessness app

The Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments created a mobile app in two weeks to improve the process for counting homeless veterans. The ...

In the eight months since the Office of Management and Budget released the Digital Government Strategy, agencies have been busy putting the building blocks in place to incorporate and innovate with mobile computing.

For instance, the Homeland Security Department published in August the security baseline framework, and it plans on releasing part two later this spring.

The Chief Information Officer’s Council issued a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) guidance for agencies to consider as they move toward this new approach to smartphones and tablets.

But the real impact of the Digital Government Strategy isn’t any guidance or document, but how agencies use the concepts to respond to mission needs. And there may be no better example of that impact than what the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development did over the last two weeks.

VA and HUD created a mobile application to make it easier for employees to count homeless veterans as part of their annual point-in-time survey.

“During the last two weeks of January, starting now, they will be out in the field with this application in some cases, this is really a pilot, to use this application to collect some basic demographic information using the geolocator on the iPhone to find out what your location is when possible,” said Dave Peters, VA’s assistant deputy CIO for development management, at the Federal Mobile Computing Summit Wednesday in Washington. “The data will be stored on the phone temporarily until cellular coverage is reestablished and then sent off to the VA database.”

Peters said VA and HUD not only developed the app, but got it through all the major hurdles so it could be deployed in time for the two-week survey.

“We had the right customer, very engaged. The pressure helped I think in this case. Without a lot of time to argue, things get done,” he said. “We also had great support from our management structure, our leadership through [Assistant Secretary in the Office of Information and Technology and CIO] Roger Baker, and their willingness to get engaged and support the waivers in the cases where we needed it.”

Spurring innovation through mobile

The approach VA and HUD took shows the beginnings of the necessary culture change to do what the Obama administration has been pushing for, to innovate and do more with less through mobile.

“What are we doing to spur innovation? We set standards for agencies to take off and run,” said Lisa Schlosser, the federal deputy CIO. “We published in May the Digital Government Strategy, which we believe is forward thinking and leaning. It sets out the way we will approach digital government.”

The document laid out multiple milestones over three, six and 12 month timeframes. Each goal adds another brick down the path toward easing the process to create apps and use mobile devices.

“There’s been a lot of collaboration around mobile security, and now we have a more common understanding how we talk about mobile security, the risks in the mobile environment and how we can tailor those risks to our mission,” said Rick Holgate, CIO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives inside the Justice Department. “We’ve also seen an emphasis on adopting common platforms across agencies.”

VA is trying to adopt not only common platforms, but a standard approach mobile app development.

Peters said the work with HUD shows what the future path could look like.

“I would very much like more apps done in this manner, when appropriate. We were under tremendous pressure to get this out in such a short period of time that I couldn’t imagine this working in any other way. If you wanted to talk about developing a business requirement, for instance, the entire two weeks would’ve been eaten up by that alone. It would have been impossible to develop something like this in that manner.”

New governance model at VA

To continue moving down the path laid by their work with HUD, VA is developing a new governance model for mobile applications. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and the CIO’s office are creating a joint governance board to manage the mobile apps development process.

Peters said this is not a board to oversee pilot programs with mobile devices, but the actual software development process.

“In the past, only OIT and product development would be allowed to develop applications. We recognized that in this current environment we want to use any resources we can, and working with VHA, who has a great interest in developing mobile apps and resources, we created this joint board,” he said. “Eventually, it will include Veterans Benefits Administration and the Cemeteries Administration as well. We are just getting started in the talks, working through the initial documentation, putting together an integrated project team to review the documents, and eventually all mobile apps regardless of the source will come through this organization.”

Peters added the joint board will provide an assortment of services, including common governance, a common certification process, a place to discover and share best practices and a common infrastructure to build the apps.

VA will prioritize app development based on the needs of VHA, VBA and NCA, and then what resources the CIO’s office can provide.

“This new governance structure would be a way to ensure, regardless of the source, all the apps would come through one organization to help eliminate duplicative applications that might overlap in functionality,” Peters said.

Agile development is a focus area

VA also is putting in place two other pieces to help with the move to mobile.

The department created a test, development and production environment in the cloud.

Peters said the platform is cloud-based and self provisioning so anyone within VA could use it as a sandbox to innovate.

He added the Navy is considering using the test, develop and production environment.

The second piece is training employees to develop using the agile approach.

Peters said several hundred employees have gone through the scrum training, and agile showed its worth during the veteran homelessness app development effort.

“There’s a definite focus on agility. This governance board will help us pave the way to more streamlined processes,” he said. “We use ProPath to document our processes and product development, and expect to have governance board and the working groups that support it propose more streamlined processes in ProPath that take into account agile and the reality of agile with regard to not creating large business requirements up from and more lean thinking as well.”


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