With 626,300 mobile phone users in Bhutan, mobile apps present an opportunity to deliver public services 

G2C: When travelling by road within Bhutan, especially on the east-west highway, there’s always the risk that you could encounter a block, either natural or deliberate. A few hours of waiting is not uncommon.

However, as part of an effort to enhance access to public services using the mobile platform, a mobile application called the Bhutan Road Safety is now available. The app provides users with information on when and where the latest block has occurred or is scheduled to take place, where maintenance is on-going, and even the status of neighbouring Indian highways. The information is either obtained from the concerned government agency or provided by users themselves.

The app can also be used to remind users when they have to renew their registration or “blue book.”

The app was one of three that won first place and Nu 200,000 in prize money, for a mobile apps development contest organised by the G2C (government to citizen) office. The award ceremony for the contest was held yesterday.

The other two mobile apps that grabbed first place and Nu 200,000 each, was the Dial for Blood and m-Power Youth apps.

The Dial for Blood app allows users to look for blood donors and also to organise blood donation campaigns. Four developers working for a Swiss company at the IT park created the app during their off hours.

One of them, Yogesh Mongar, said that the idea for the app sprouted after a friend at the health ministry told him about the blood shortages faced when schools are not in session. He said the app was developed to assist the health ministry to overcome such problems.

The m-Power Youth app is to be used by youth for counselling and to be aware of youth-related events taking place in the country. Sonam Tobgay, the app’s developer and a civil servant, said he had found out that youth are reluctant to undergo face-to-face counselling but was also aware that the majority of them use smart phones. This meant that a mobile counselling app could fill the gap.

Using the app, youth can share their thoughts and be counselled anonymously. The contact addresses for school counsellors across the country and other help lines can also be accessed.

One notable feature of the app is that an Internet connection is not required for all the app’s features. The app can also be updated through SMS.

A private firm, Scan Bhutan developed the Bhutan Road Safety app.

One of its developers, Chencho Tshering said that despite the main mode of travel in Bhutan being roads, obtaining information on their status was not easy and mostly acquired through word of mouth. He said the app would share highway information required by travellers so that journeys can be planned and risky situations avoided.

Three mobile apps were also selected as runners up, each winning Nu 50,000.

The Personal Dungtsho app allows users to self-diagnose ailments and obtain medical advice; the Lamtoen app was designed to provide youth with job vacancies and other youth-related information, and the Bhutan Alert app would notify users of government alerts issued during a disaster.

The six apps will be used by the concerned government agencies.

All six of the mobile apps are available on the G2C service delivery website (www.citizenservices.gov.bt) and the Google Playstore for Android users. The apps will be available for Apple devices in the near future.

Home minister Dawa Gyeltshen, chief guest at the award ceremony, said that with 626,300 mobile phone users in Bhutan, using mobile apps to bring them public services was “a very good opportunity.” Lyonpo also pointed out that “information is power” and that public services delivered via the mobile platform would only enhance the safety, education, and health, among others, of the people.

Cabinet secretary, Kinzang Wangdi, said that he hoped the apps would be used by the agencies they were designed for. “Coming up with applications is one thing but having it sustain in the long run is very important,” he said. “So I hope the agencies responsible will keep these applications and this programme alive and it shouldn’t be just confined to the project period,” he added. “Unfortunately we see that most good things die with the end of the project period.”

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) supported the G2C office in conducting the competition.

SDC director, Matthias Meier, said that while the agency had been supporting e-governance in Bhutan since 2008, this was the first time private firms were included. He said this was an example of how the expertise and creativity of the private sector could be harnessed for public services.

“The time has come to harness the full potential of these technologies for public service delivery,” he said.

He added that the number of proposals submitted had shown that there is skill and creativity in the Bhutanese IT sector that can be tapped into, and that the SDC looked forward to further cooperation with the G2C office. A total of 31 applications were submitted.

G2C office head Sonam Thaye said the event marked the beginning of a new era in public service delivery in Bhutan.

While it was acknowledged that internet connectivity was not yet stable in many parts of Bhutan and that some rural communities were not yet IT literate, it was also pointed out that mobile penetration is far greater than other forms of communications.

The mobile apps development contest was the first of its kind to be organised in Bhutan.

Gyalsten K Dorji