New York State Senate Leads Nation in Launching iPad, Mobile Phone Legislative Apps

The creation of an iPad app of New York State Senate business was primarily driven by senators who had just purchased the devices or were using one through a pilot Apple.

by / August 26, 2010

The New York State Senate isn't wasting any time integrating new consumer technology. Just two months after launching its mobile legislative app -- hailed as the first in the nation developed by a legislative body -- it built one for Apple's latest hardware, the iPad.

Announced Thursday, Aug. 19, NYSenate for iPad is similar to its mobile predecessors available on iPhones and Android phones, except its content is displayed on the iPad's larger screen.

"NYSenate for iPad brings New Yorkers closer to their elected officials, making comprehensive access to Senate information and content from all New York state senators available any time, anywhere -- citizens, staff and journalists can use the app to search for bill information, contact their senator, review event calendars, read senators' blogs, watch archived video of senate session, committee meetings and public hearings and even freedom of information law requests," a New York Senate press release stated.

The New York State Senate started a push in late 2008 to rebrand its image, with a focus on using technology to better communicate with constituents, many of whom live hours away from the state capitol of Albany, said Senate Office of the CIO lead mobile app developer Nathan Freitas. Led by Senate CIO Andrew Hoppin, was launched in May 2009 as a comprehensive repository of all Senate institutional administrative data and a Gov 2.0 portal.

The next logical step was to make such information available for mobile phones, Freitas said. "Once we got the data on the Web and had an API, we could then build the mobile app," he said. "But that's not enough -- everyone wants an app."

The Senate CIO's Office took old mainframes and put them online, essentially taking data from a closed system and putting it on an open system, enabling mobile app development, Freitas said. Using open source software, the projects' software code is published online and freely available for reuse by government peers and any other third party, "thus creating the anticipated ROI of our investment in these projects," the release said.

The mobile apps' creation was mainly driven by citizens and constituents wanting to more easily access information, Freitas said, while the creation of the iPad app was primarily driven by senators who had just purchased the devices or were using one through a pilot project with Apple, Freitas said. While popularity and usage rate of the iPad app is currently unknown -- Apple doesn't provide that information until a month after an app's launch -- the mobile app has been downloaded by more than 1,000 New Yorkers, according to the Senate CIO's Office.

But given the context of the political calendar -- the Senate went on vacation around the time of the mobile app launch -- the download numbers should only improve with time, Freitas said. "We launched it in a quiet time and haven't really promoted it," he said.

Freitas compared the mobile and iPad apps' usage to that seen when the Senate launched its live streaming of Senate sessions in summer 2009. Initially maybe 100 people had viewed video, Freitas said. But when the marriage equality debate went to the Senate floor in December, those numbers soared to roughly 15,000, he said, thanks to links to the Senate live streaming page from and other popular websites.

"It's so new, so we're waiting to see what people think," Freitas said.

However, there were a few hurdles in developing the mobile apps that had nothing to do with working for a state agency. Apple requested the developers improve certain features before approving the app, which added about a month of additional work, Freitas said. "It was

good and bad - they're sort of like the good coach or teacher you begrudgedly work harder for," he said. "It's kind of funny the power Apple has and it makes it a little too difficult."

Building the Android app wasn't such a hassle, however, as it can be accomplished on any operating system, be it Macintosh, Windows or Linux, Freitas said. And about 80 percent of the code written for the iPhone is the same needed for the Android app, he said.

Using Appcelerator, a free and open source development platform, Freitas was able to mostly use JavaScript in creating the mobile apps.

Moving toward more transparency, the iPad app allows users -- in portrait mode -- to view a newspaper-style display of the latest stories posted by all 62 Senate offices, along with upcoming events, the latest YouTube clips and highlighted Senate initiatives, according to the release. When in landscape mode, the iPad allows users to see a detailed menu, which provides full access to browse complete legislative data, video clips, calendars and more. "In addition, access to the full, uncut session, meeting and event videos are provided, and can be played back full-screen and using the video-out capability of the iPad," the release stated.

Freitas is already seeing other agencies' interest in the Senate's mobile and iPad apps. He's hoping it catches on with other states, especially because the software code is free and open source.

"I hope it's a trend and I hope we see a lot more of these kinds of opportunities in government for technology," he said. "We need to build tools and systems that are about collaboration and openness."


Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.