State and local governments getting pretty app-happy


“There’s an app for that.”

That catch-phrase – now trademarked by Apple – becomes more literally true every day, as the proliferation of smartphones and other mobile devices takes the functions formerly exclusive to desktop computers, telephone calls and printed materials and puts them in the palms of consumers’ hands.

And, despite the reputation for a laid-back lifestyle that gives Sussex County it’s “Lower Slower” nickname, the fast-moving technology of apps (short for applications, but particularly indicative of the new generation of mobile software applications) is becoming more and more common in the everyday lives of local residents and visitors, as well.

This week, the State of Delaware began publicizing a new suite of applications for the iOS operating system common to the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, as well as to the Android operating system that powers a growing number of smartphones and newly released tablet computers. The apps target not only Delaware residents but visitors, as well, offering everything from information on government meetings and state park amenities to how to find fresh Delaware produce at a local farmers’ market.

The first of the state’s apps, the Official State of Delaware App, offers a wide variety of information – the latest state news releases, travel and weather alerts, information on public meetings, a list of recent updates to Facebook accounts maintained by the State, and a selection of videos, photos and blog posts.

A mobile-friendly Home tab offers the latest information, while a Categories tab gives you the ability to narrow down your stream of State information a particular variety. A Search tab lets you do just that, while a Social tab offers the State’s Twitter feed, a stream of references to the First State and the ability to use the location-aware app to “shout” out using your Facebook account.

Connecting your Facebook and Twitter accounts to the Official State of Delaware App lets you access favorite posts you read inside the app, check in from locations state-wide and repost from the app to your social networking accounts.

Like many apps, the Official State of Delaware App offers you the opportunity to take a little bit of your downtime and make sure you’re up-to-date on what’s happening around you. You’ll have much less of an excuse to say you didn’t know about a big public hearing when you can check the meeting schedules while waiting in line for a big cup of boardwalk fries or some frozen custard.

The app also asks for permission to “push” messages to your phone, meaning that the State can now let you know directly when something of import is happening, such as weather emergencies that can mean major road closures.

Delaware gets a digital park ranger

A second app – the Official Delaware State Parks Guide, a.k.a. “PocketRanger” – offers a two-tiered opportunity to get to know the state’s various park areas, with a free basic version and a Pro version that can be purchased for $3.99 through an in-app purchase to enable extended features.

The basic version of the parks app offers many of the same features as the generalized State of Delaware app, but tailored for park users. There is a listing of recent news releases – everything from recent archeological findings in the park areas to new programs and wildlife sightings – as well as time-sensitive news, such as the Indian River Marina’s fishing report, posted weekly, and postings to the State Parks Facebook page.

It also puts all the basic information on all of the state parks right at your fingertips, even on the road. Need to know what time Fenwick Island State Park opens? It’s in there. Need to call Delaware Seashore State Park to schedule a guided paddling trip? Call right from the app. Or, quickly access a list of charter fishing contacts if you’re in the mood to reel in some fish from offshore.

The app also features a literal calendar of events – an actual monthly calendar, along with a full listing, of events offered in Delaware’s various parks. The best feature here may be the ability to tick off events of interest, which then show up in a “My Schedule” area, so you can keep track of that lecture you wanted to attend or that tour you wanted to take, without having to look back through the full listing or take the time and trouble to add it to a separate calendar app.

Smartphone photographers can take advantage of the photo sharing tab, which will let them take a photo right from within the app and upload it to their Flickr account or simply save it for later, when they can share it however they please.

Finally, the basic app offers information on park regulations, the carry-in/carry-out policy, pet policy and weather.

The $3.99 in-app purchase of the pro version of the parks app will unlock a bevy of location-aware features, allowing users to keep track of friends, mark waypoints when traveling through the parks, record tracks they find, cache the online maps for use without a data connection and share their activities with others.

The pro version offers GPS mapping in road, satellite, hybrid and terrain maps; a Parks Nearest Me GPS feature; pre-programmed Geographic Information System (GIS) and points of interest (POI) to guide users through the park; a “friend finder” to help them keep track of companions while on a trail; a built-in compass and indicators for longitude, latitude and altitude.

Those using the Pro features can record, save and recall waypoints during a visit or in the future; mark waypoints and snap photos of those spots; share tracks, waypoints or positions with registered recipients through Facebook or Twitter. Those engaging in geo-caching activities – a kind of GPS-based treasure hunt – will particularly be able to enjoy the Pro version’s ability to export tracks and waypoints in KML and GPX formats, by email. And, any safety-minded park visitor will appreciate being able to let family and friends know their whereabouts with the Pro version’s alert communications feature.

High-tech on the farm and at the farmers’ market

The third official State of Delaware app, Delaware Fresh, is designed for anyone who loves fresh produce right off a local farm and whose favorite haunt is a farmers’ market.

Loading this app, the first thing the user sees is a map of Delaware full of red pin-dots, marking the locations of farmers’ market in the Delaware Department of Agriculture’s program – both the official farmers’ markets that bring multiple farmers together in one location and some of the on-the-farm markets and “U-pick” operations run by local farmers. Given permission to determine your location, it then zooms in to show where you are, related to the nearest markets, showing you just where to head for some fresh fruit and veggies.

The app provides a touch-enabled map of market locations, market names, addresses, phone numbers, email and/or Web site addresses, if available, and the markets’ hours of operation. The app also offers a description of available items at some of the markets, though as of this week, it didn’t tell you what to expect at the Bethany or Fenwick markets, nor did it include Millsboro’s new Fresh Garden Market or the new Farmers’ Market at Sea Colony in its listings. (Nor did the new farmers’ market at Good Earth Market in Clarksville, which was set to open this week, make it into the app.) But that’s a lack that’s likely to be updated in the future.

Speaking about the Delaware Fresh app project, Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee said, “This app is a great way to connect today’s generation of technology smart consumers with the best that Delaware has to offer.”

The suite of official State of Delaware apps continues a trend in Delaware state government of being on the cutting edge of technology, with a heavy investment in such things as Web sites, online security, social networking and GIS technology.

Delaware Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock said, “Our goal in the development of e-government solutions is to serve the citizens and businesses of Delaware more efficiently and effectively using widely available technology. Mobile apps such as Delaware Fresh are just one of the ways we can do that.”

Cape May-Lewes Ferry offers adventurers a potential prize

Those thinking about heading to Cape Henlopen and beyond the Delaware state line for some summer fun can not only find some interesting attractions and landmarks to visit in a new app but get a chance to win a one-week beach vacation in Cape May, N.J., and Lewes, Del.

The Cape May-Lewes Ferry recently announced the release of a free Cape May-Lewes Ferry app and “Explore Twin Capes” mobile-friendly Web site (www.exploretwincapes.com), along with a related sweepstakes for those who plan to, or are willing to, check in on both sides of the Delaware Bay.

The app allows explorers to check-in electronically at 50 specified Twin Capes attractions and landmarks in New Jersey and Delaware, with each check-in earning them one sweepstakes entry. No purchase is necessary to win, but at least one check-in must be logged on each side of the Delaware Bay to be eligible.

“This is a great way for visitors to explore the Twin Capes – from amusement centers to a historic lightship, shopping outlets to vineyards, people will truly experience much of what the two capes have to offer,” said Michael Porch, marketing manager for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. “Now, simply by bird-watching at Cape May Bird Observatory and playing the slots at Dover Downs, you could bring your family – for free – to our beaches for a week!”

The prize package includes hotel accommodations on both sides of the Delaware Bay, as well as round-trip auto fare on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. The hotel accommodations, for four people (two adults/two children), will be awarded at the Inn at Canal Square in Lewes, Del., and Congress Hall, in Cape May, N.J. The winner will also receive dinner for four at the Blue Pig Restaurant and a spa package for two, among other prizes.

“Tourism is the lifeblood of the Twin Capes economy and we are pleased that the Cross-Cape Adventure helps promote many of our tourism partners,” added Porch. “By including attractions in Delaware and New Jersey in the promotion, we’re encouraging vacationers and locals alike to explore new destinations on both sides of the bay.”

The smartphone-ready Twin Capes apps are available on iOS devices, Android devices and Blackberry devices, and participants can also check in via virtual markers – in the form of QR codes, which can be scanned by many mobile phones. Those not using an app but who want to participate in the contest can register online at the Twin Capes Web site.

“This is a very unique promotion that aims to make the ferry more accessible for the rapidly growing segment of our customers who use smart phones,” added Porch. “We wanted the contest to be accessible and modern – a scavenger hunt, if you will, in the mobile age. We’ve also added QR codes, which are readable by smartphones, to our Cross-Cape Adventure advertising. It is important for us to improve our technology in order to offer more convenience for our travelers.”

One winner will be randomly selected from all qualifying sweepstakes entries on or about Oct. 3.

Of course, beyond the contest is the function of the app. Honestly, this is one that could prove useful even for the long-time local, because it may suggest a destination you’ve never visited before or one you have not visited in a long time. Like the Delaware Fresh app, the location-aware Twin Capes app will ask permission to know your location, at which point it will place you on a map and show you some of the points of interest around you.

The landmarks run from Dover south in Delaware, but – appropriately – are clustered primarily in the Cape Henlopen and Cape May areas. The farthest south is the DiscoverSea museum in Fenwick Island, while the northernmost is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Pleasantville, N.J. Tapping the pin-points on the map will bring up the name of the attraction, its address and phone number, along with a brief description.

There’s also a list of the attractions, divided between the two states, so you can browse for something that looks like fun and then check out where it’s located – everything from the Cape May Lighthouse and the Wildwoods by the Sea Doo Wop Experience to Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Tanger Outlets, the Zwaanendael Museum and Fisherman’s Wharf Marina.

Head out to one of the spots and you can check in – but make sure you’re really there, because a location-aware app knows when you’re fudging and you’re really too far away to be there.

The app also helps you get from here to there, with a Cape May-Lewes Ferry schedule, showing the departure and arrival times on both sides of the bay, as well the Web site address and a phone number to make reservations before you head out on your adventure.

If you’d like to explore the coastal Delaware area or venture into New Jersey for the afternoon, the app is a great enticement to do just that, offering you basics for planning a trip and a good idea what you might light to see once you get there.

Bethany Beach visitors could get app-happy

I had hoped to offer you one more local app to take advantage of this summer, but this will be more a taste of things to come. Still, if you’re trying to get around in Bethany Beach and want to avoid the cost and hassles of parking your car, the proposed Bethany Beach Town Trolley app will be right up your alley.

Two app developers have been in contact with Bethany Beach officials this year about potentially developing an app that would track the location of the town’s trolleys. The app is still just in proposal stages, but it could provide tremendous convenience for visitors and residents in the town, since the app could let them know where a trolley is in real time, letting them stay inside, in the air-conditioning, until the trolley nears their stop – or, alternatively, let them know they’ve just missed it and will have time to kill before the next one arrives.

Another potential feature is the ability to request the trolley stop along its existing route, but at a location that isn’t a designated bus stop. The trolley service already offers that as an option (so long as you’re not hailing it on Route 26!), but being able to let the driver know that you’re wanting a ride at a certain location makes it easier for riders to catch the trolley without being overlooked as possible pedestrians or for those with mobility issues to ensure they can get a ride right at the curb.

Add in a map of the trolley route, its schedule and other information, and a Bethany Beach Town Trolley app could not only make riding the trolley easier and more convenient but potentially help reduce the number of cars being driven downtown, thereby reducing the amount of traffic on the roads and the number of cars seeking parking spaces at peak times of the year.

Town officials had hoped to have the trolley app in place this summer, but delays with the vendors could push that off until the summer of 2012. Still, it’s something that beachgoers can look forward to as a way to make that future vacation even less stressful than it is today.

Parking is another area where apps could one day benefit the town, or others, though that day could be far in the future. But, in San Francisco – where parking can be just as much in demand as in Bethany Beach on a sunny summer day – they’ve just rolled out a pilot project called SFPark, which has both an app and a Web site. Both offer a map of parking areas and indicate what the pricing is for parking in those areas. But SFPark also offers a real-time parking availability indicator.

Yes, that’s right – real-time parking information on each and every parking space in the monitored zones (right now, eight of them around the city). You can know whether a parking space in front of your apartment building is free or whether there’s no parking at all available within blocks of your intended destination (and maybe postpone that shopping trip for an hour or two!).

The city used $20 million in grant money to install a system of special parking sensors in each parking space in the designated areas of the pilot project. Each sensor checks to see whether there’s a car parked in that space, and if a space is available, it’s shown on the online map and in the app. That’s not only useful to indicate where an available space is when you’re trying to find a spot to park, but tells drivers they might want to avoid the area or perhaps take a bus.

Beyond that convenience factor, the SFPark system is also being used to help regulate parking demand. Each month, the data from the parking sensors will be analyzed, with a goal of having at least one parking space available in most metered blocks at all times. If there are fewer than that, the city will aim to free up some parking by – hold onto your hats! – raising parking rates in the block, to encourage people to move their cars sooner or, again, to take the bus.

On the other hand, if parking rates seem to be discouraging too many drivers, the rates could be lowered, or reduced rates could be used to encourage drivers to park in locations with less demand. That’s all done remotely, with meters connected to a central system.

The SFPark project is one of the first of its kind, but it could be the wave of the future – especially in places where parking is in high demand, just like summertime in Bethany Beach. There’s no app for that – yet. But someday, there could be.

For more information on the official State of Delaware apps and links to download them, visit http:// apps.delaware.gov. You can find out more about Cape May-Lewes Ferry app and the related contest at www.exploretwincapes.com. And pick up future issues of the Coastal Point for updates on the Bethany Beach trolley app.