The U.S. Army? There's An App For That

The U.S. Army is working to use smartphones on the battlefield as a way to keep soldiers connected and give them better tools. Specialist Nicholas Johnson has designed a group of applications meant to help troops on the ground. Host Audie Cornish has more.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan may soon get a new tool to help them on the battlefield - and it's one you've got too. If you've got a smartphone, then you know how useful all those digital applications can be. You're stuck in traffic and need an alternate route home; you're at the mall and can't quite place the song playing in the elevator. But apps aren't just a helpful little boost for you and me - the U.S. Army has taken note as well, starting a new smartphone pilot program. They're testing some of them out at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Specialist Nicholas Johnson's job is to make the apps and make them quickly.

SPECIALIST NICHOLAS JOHNSON: They came to me, I think, on a Thursday and said, hey, we really need this capability out there. I think by Saturday I had delivered it to him and had it loaded on all the devices and they were out using it and testing it.

CORNISH: He's a former civilian software designer. But he says designing apps for soldiers takes a special touch.

JOHNSON: You're working with a group of people who are under stress, whether they are doing long patrols for eight hours a day, they're under duress from gunfire or the weather.

CORNISH: So, Johnson designed his apps with large buttons and simple displays. One of the first is an app that collects and displays census data, right down to a village address, so soldiers overseas can see exactly who they're talking to and find common ground with locals.

JOHNSON: It could be anything from religious association to travel affiliation, describing their jobs, describing their family life, so on and so forth.

CORNISH: Another idea came from a field commander who wanted his soldiers to use their smartphones to capture the scene in the field and send information back to the command post - a kind of instagram for the army without the special effects. No matter what the request, most of the programs have focused on sharing information, and specialist Johnson thinks that's essential.

JOHNSON: In Afghanistan and overseas, we try to, as much as we can, work with the population to discourage cooperation with insurgents all the time. And to do so, we need to have as much information as possible.

CORNISH: Specialist Nicholas Johnson spoke to us from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

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CORNISH: You're listening to NPR News.

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