Launching Into Cyberspace: Units utilizing mobile apps to improve communication

Citizen Airman/Oct. 2017 -- As mobile applications become more popular and a major part of people’s everyday lives, Air Force Reserve units throughout the nation are developing apps to expand capabilities and give more flexibility and agility to Reserve Citizen Airmen to be ready to complete the mission.

At the 916th Air Refueling Wing located at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, the public affairs office helped launch the wing’s mobile app in February. Some of the app’s major features allow Reservists to view upcoming events and unit training assembly dates, base maps, a fitness calculator, Air Force references and handbooks, wing news, and social media updates.

Senior Airman Jeramy Moore, a PA photojournalist, explained how the mobile app was first developed.

“A few forward-thinking Airmen in the wing, including Maj. Christine Harvey, Lt. Col Shannon Mann and retired Master Sgt. Wendy Lopedote, bounced the idea around for years until it fell on the ears of a sympathetic commander,” Moore said.

With leadership’s support, the team started looking at possible developers for the app. One of the developers the team contacted was Straxis LLC.

“Straxis typically works with major universities, so the features and designs in the proposed app were configured for university students,” Moore said. “We had to edit almost every item so that it would be appropriate for an Air Force audience.”

The company worked with the 916th ARW on achievable timelines and milestones for both the app’s soft launch and official launch. The app costs $2,500 per year, which includes ongoing technical support.

Since the official launch, Moore said the feedback from the wing’s Reservists has been very positive.

As someone who has gone through the process of developing a mobile app, Moore has some advice for other Reservists interested in taking on the task.

“Prepare as an office and wing for the launch of the app,” he said. “Provide continuous support and feedback as long as the app is active. Market it generously.”

The wing is working on incorporating new features like a uniform guide and feedback device.

The 315th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, was one of the first Air Force Reserve Command units to launch an app, and Michael Dukes, 315th AW public affairs command information chief, recalls the steps it took to get the app done back in 2015.

“Since everyone has a smartphone these days, we knew that an app was the logical direction to better reach our members,” Dukes said. “Also, most people turn to their phones for information first, and some prefer that method over desktop computers.”

When Dukes and his team brought the idea of an app to their leadership, they received full support to move forward.

In starting the process of developing the app, Dukes was met with a major challenge.

“Initially, I tried developing it myself, and while I have technical skills, I quickly learned that there were elements involved that would not make it a very efficient way of accomplishing our goal of a wing app,” he said. “We eventually found a local developer that could do all the programming to our specifications.”

One of the things about creating an app that he quickly found out was satisfying the various requirements for the different application platforms.

“Apple requires that it review and approve all software and apps designed for its products,” Dukes said. “The last time I checked, that fee was $1,000 just to have Apple look at and give it the green light.”

The 315th managed to find a developer who helped develop the app and agreed to provide service and support for two years at a cost of $2,500.

The app they created has a number of features including calendars for upcoming events, weather forecasts, buttons for a crisis hotline, job resources, the Yellow Ribbon program and family readiness, and a news feed. In addition, the app gives people the opportunity to submit photos to the public affairs office for consideration for the wing’s social media channels.

“Initially, people were concerned about the app permissions such as access contacts, email, phones and social media, but we explained that those are standard and required rights,” Dukes said. “And the app only uses those parts of your phone when you decide to share a photo or comment on our Facebook page, or send an email to us through the app. This part is about educating unit members.”

Dukes explained that once the users understood more about the app, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And even though the app launched two years ago, the public affairs office is working on doing more with it.

“I'm planning to create a promotional video commercial within the next month or so,” he said. “We are also looking at developing a PA program to produce podcasts for our wing, and there will be a button for that, too.”

The 433rd AW located at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, also has an app for its Reservists with features such as event calendars and a fitness calculator, but it also has a very unique feature called “Groups.”

“This is the newest feature added to the app,” Senior Master Sgt. Joe Gonzalez, 26th Aerial Port Squadron passenger services flight chief, said. “Groups allows for a unit or organization like the Rising 6 to create its own space within the app.”

The new feature allows the app administrators to send information and content to specific target audiences with their own calendar, message board and photos.

In developing the app, Maj. Timothy Wade, 433rd AW public affairs chief, enlisted the support of Gonzalez to help lead the effort.

“Our leadership wanted an avenue to engage with the lifeblood of the wing — the younger Airmen,” Wade said. “So leadership set up a committee, and Sergeant Gonzalez took the mantle and did the investigative work on establishing the app. With his effort and our PA staff’s actions, we have been able to establish another way to communicate with our Airmen.”

Wade said the mobile app provides a new way for the wing to stay connected with its people.

“With so many of our Airmen living in various areas of the country, it is imperative we have an avenue to contact them when we have inclement weather, national emergencies or exercises,” he said.

At the 94th AW at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, Col. Patrick Campbell, 94th Operations Group commander, saw a need for establishing a better communication method to relay information to Reservists assigned to the wing.

“The 94th AW had a serious communications issue,” Campbell said. “The primary method of distributing information was what we call ‘Base Pop’ or an email blitz to the members’ government email address. However, most members don’t check their government email on a regular basis. Additionally, numerous emails have large files attached, which completely overwhelms the standard email box. Subsequently, many members would just delete ‘Base Population’ titled emails.”

As with other units, the 94th AW’s solution to this communication problem was to develop a mobile app and, like the 433rd AW and 916th ARW, the 94th contacted the company Straxis for assistance. Campbell had previously worked with the company as a member of the 914th AW (now the 914th ARW) at Niagara Falls International Airport Air Reserve Station, New York, to develop an app for that unit.

“It is the company that developed the app for the Air Force Academy as well as the other military academies,” he said. “We were able to modify its college template to meet our unique base needs. Since our start, there are over a dozen military units that have created apps with Straxis, to include the United States Air Force Band.”

When the app was completed, it was time to launch.

“We then gave a select few individuals access to the beta version for about a month,” he said. “After we worked through the kinks, we released it during the January 2017 UTA.”

Campbell said one of the keys to maintaining a successful app is keeping the information up to date and pertinent.

“Throwing stuff on the app ‘just because’ makes the app too busy and clumsy to use,” he said. “Sending out numerous push notifications renders those notifications to just noise on one’s phone. Information on the app must be relevant and current. Having old data on the app for long periods of time indicates no one really cares about it, and members will stop using it.”

Campbell said the Air Force, as a whole, needs to fully embrace mobile apps as an effective form of communication.

“It is important to note that many of our new Airmen do not have computers,” he said. “But all of them have cellphones. I strongly believe if we communicate effectively to this new generation, we will keep them. Recruitment and retention is a problem today. These tools will speak directly to our young Airmen, and they will know that we actually care about them.”

(For more information on how to develop a mobile app within AFRC, visit https://pwrr.afrc.af.mil.)