The Ministry of External Affairs has launched a mobile app, MEAIndia, which sources all information related to the Ministry’s citizen centric services. The app is available for download from the Google Play Store and Apple’s iTunes store.

We tried the app on a Android handset (Micromax A90S) and found it to be aesthetically appealing when compared to other technology attempts by the government. The app provides information on E-citizen, Haj, Indian mission abroad, Kailash Mansarovar yatra, Passport services, Public Diplomacy, visa/consular services, track tenders, among others. It also offers a media center where one can access all press releases, media advisories, speeches and statements, media briefings, popular decision by the ministry, documents, MEA’s twitter & Facebook accounts, and a video gallery. The app also allows one to take notes from within the app, however, we found that the back button doesn’t work if one enters the notes section.

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Its passport service section offers features such as information on how to apply, location nearest passport seva kendra, track one’s application, fee calculator, download passport form. The app allows one to select nearest city, enter PIN code or take current location data from phone’s GPS.

The most interesting part of the app is that it maps prime minister’s and external affair minister’s visits abroad on a Google world map. One can view which countries the Prime Minister has visited foreign countries. We found visits by the prime minister back to the year 2005. On clicking the pointer it also gives out the kind of visit it was — official visit or an event, and also links to the official press release about the visit. This is particularly important as one can track the visits made by the ministers and for what reason and which areas are more frequently visited. For example, I found that the PM’s abroad visits were more to the European countries and found it odd that there were no visits made to Australia.

The app also allows one to locate nearest Embassy for consular assistance. However as pointed out by Nakul Shenoy, it does not work in an offline line mode, which makes it pretty useless again as anyone abroad with an Internet access could easily do the same by accessing the external ministry website.

That said, the use of Google Maps in the app is quite interesting because, at one end, the Survey of India, the official survey and mapping organization in India, had filed a complaint with the Delhi Police against Google for hosting its Mapathon contest, and India’s maps policy says that the Survey of India has exclusivity over open series maps in India. So why didn’t the MEA use maps from the Survey of India instead of Google Maps?

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The app also allows one to ask the external affairs minister a question from within the app. One can vote the questions asked, however, it appears that the government selects a particular topic that can be discussed. At the time of writing this article, the topic of discussion was “India-US relations” and had one question (hopefully submitted by citizen) — How Joe Biden’s visit influences India-US bilateral relations, which has received 29 votes. The app claims that the top two voted questions will be answered by the minister. The frequency at which the EAM will answer the questions raised by public is unclear, however, this make it easier for the public to interact with their representatives. We were not able to test this feature, but we hope that the app notifies when the external minister answers the questions that one has voted.

They are probably taking questions only on pre-selected topics, because the ministry will be inundated with questions otherwise. This is neat way of controlling questions, however,  it will not encourage people to participate.

Use of technology by the government

It appears that the government is trying to reach out to citizens through new media and technology. A lot of ministers and Lok Sabha members are making use of social media technologies to reach out to citizens. Typically it’s been difficult for citizens to reach out to their representatives. Apps like these are able to narrow the gaps between citizens and their representatives. A similar initiative needs to implemented to reach out to members of the parliament on the go.

Earlier this month, Member of Parliament (MP) Rajeev Chandrasekhar started an initiative called ASK (Ask Seek Know) through which he intends to raise questions and queries of citizens during the monsoon session of the Parliament.

In 2011, to allow more communication, MPs were being sanctioned Rs 50,000 for buy an iPad, however, use of such advance tech remains debatable.

That said,  following the release of the 12th Five Year Plan, the Planning Commission of India had organised a nation-wide hackathon in April 2013 which is open to all making it participatory.  In May 2013, the Indian Government has launched a pilot version of its e-Gov application store at apps.gov.in. In March 2013, the Planning Commission had also organised a Google Hangout to explain the key elements of the 12th plan. This has been one of those few note worthy initiatives undertaken by the Government of India.