Government and mobile apps

A really thorough and thought-provoking post from Public Strategist on the whole ‘should government develop iPhone apps?’ debate:

If government is in the business of service at all, it should be efficient, up to date, and sensitive to the needs and preferences of the users of the services. That doens’t mean chasing every technological fad, but it does mean it was right for government to have web sites well before web access was anything close to ubiquitous, and exactly the same arguments now apply to the next generation of devices. It also doesn’t mean that because government communication is good, all government communications are good – and similarly, the argument that it may be good for government to create apps, does not at all mean that every app is a good one, still less that it is good only because it was created by government.

In the comments to that post, Steph Gray makes some equally astute points:

Of course Government should be developing smartphone apps (though probably not iPhone exclusively) as part of communication strategies to reach mobile audiences, and building on the ‘start simple’ approaches above. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to still be spending such large sums on direct mail to businesses, for example.

But government shouldn’t be a monopoly provider, crowding out commercial or voluntary alternatives, and it should probably focus on the areas with strong social benefit but limited commercial opportunity.

My view on this comes in two main flavours:

  1. It’s probably best to concentrate activity on making sure existing web properties render nicely on a decent range of mobile platforms than focus on native apps
  2. It’s also very difficult to justify the development of (still) currently pretty niche native applications on smartphone that have the reputation (perhaps undeserved) for being the playthings of tech-obsessed media types

That doesn’t mean to say that there is no place for the native mobile application in government, just that government probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Another problem, taking local government as an example. If we’re honest, that’s where most of the services are based that would be of use to most people in a mobile application. If every council were to create an application, whether on iPhone, Android, Blackberry or whatever, this could lead to considerable fragmentation and irritation to the user. Quite a few of us are in the boat of using services in different areas, whether transport, education, waste etc, and having a different app for each of those could get irritating.

The answer is I suspect in open data. In fact, mobile apps is one of the areas that the whole open data thing really makes sense to me (as explained here, I’m no data buff).

Here’s how it could work. Some people sit down and think about the services that would really benefit from having a mobile interface. Then the bits of government that want to be involved make sure they publish the relevant up-to-date data in a usable format.

It would then be up to the commercial sector to do something with that data. The obvious solution would be for someone to produce a platform that pulls in all the data, then spits it out as per user preference within one application – so I can have waste collection dates for Cambridge and bus timetables for Peterborough (say) all in the same app. The supplier then makes their money by selling the application, advertising, or some service arrangement. The important thing though is that government isn’t spending money on the development of, or having to sell, the thing.

Am sure there’s a lot of holes in this – not least in terms of how the app developer is ever going to make any money out of it – with your average app developer making just a few hundred pounds a year. However, if it is something citizens feel they want, or need, then perhaps the market will help decide how information is best delivered to people.

8 thoughts on “Government and mobile apps”

  1. This is something I’ve been pondering for a while (probably due to an unhealthy desire to tinker with Android App development) but I must admit I always come back to one point – would I not simply be replicating functionality from our website? I think your point number 1 is wholly accurate; we need to be ensuring that our web based tools are as usable as possible on mobile devices. We took this approach with our Heritage Connect project ( which renders very differently across platforms and has geopositioning built into the website; this way we don’t need a separate app to run this content on smartphones.

    I think the only argument for standalone apps is – would it be better for the user? Obviously hitting a website every time will result in the downloading of things like graphics, interface etc, which may be a hit to the users 3G (if they’re not using WiFi). Would an app be more streamlined in this sense in that it holds the UI on the device and only uses the data connection to bring back data?

    It’s a tricky issue and I think it’s a bit of an “in thing” kind of scenario. I think it’s where we were a year or so ago with social media integration with Govt comms, only a considerably more costly gamble.

  2. Ah Dave, you could have quoted my five points, point 5 of which shows I’m with you and Andrew on the optimise-what-you’ve-got school of thought 🙂

    1. Establish standards, and good practice (COI already has something, but it needs updating:

    2. Expect strategies (demand that new mobile projects can demonstrate an audience, a business case, an evaluation process etc)

    3. Mandate open source data/APIs (so the wider ecosystem can kick in where there’s a desire to do so; and get your licensing straight)

    4. Control costs (itemise spending on mobile web/apps, count traffic properly, publish it all)

    5. Start simple (optimise web for mobile devices, use SMS, integrate mobile with regular web platforms, build standards-compliant online services)

    I think you’re right about the market being the ideal vehicle to drive most of this, particularly when budgets are tight and, to put it crudely, it’s a smartphone app or meals-on-wheels.

    That said, there are market failures here and there, and if you look at the precedents of other forms of open data and APIs – like the great Civil Service Jobs one – even open data with commercial applications often sees little reuse beyond proof of concept projects and hackdays.

    As an example: the UK wants more foreign investors, and for British companies to export more successfully. This is an elite audience, mobile-equipped, and a potential audience for a smartphone app which gives them access to information, services and contacts on the move, including when they’re offline on planes etc. Maybe it’s an argument for promoting open data better, or providing incentives to the private sector or whatever, but I don’t see why UKTI or FCO or BIS or BusinessLink or whoever shouldn’t build a smartphone app for the two or three main platforms to help exporters grow British GNP sooner rather than later, as long as it meets my tests above.

    I’ve always been a fan of enabling people with a good reason to do something, to do it well, and exposing those who do it ineffectively or inefficiently.

  3. Hi Steph

    Sorry if it seemed like I was misquoting you – to be honest I just find sticking lists inside blockquotes a little unwieldy, presentation-wise!

    I think this sort of thing falls into the category of there needing to be a large enough group of users to make it worthwhile, and if the group is large enough then it should be possible to create a private enterprise of some type to make it happen.

    I’ve got another post up my sleeve about why some digital projects are just better run by those outside of government. I think a lot of the time people focus on the profit motive of utilising the private sector. This is wrong – the focus should be on the “I’ll lose my house if I balls this up” motive – which is far more motivating.

  4. To quote from the original post….”The obvious solution would be for someone to produce a platform that pulls in all the data, then spits it out as per user preference within one application – so I can have waste collection dates for Cambridge and bus timetables for Peterborough (say) all in the same app.” Could this be the Knowledge Hub? It’s open platform; it has an API; it can reference open and linked data; it has a mashup centre. The only think missing – the spark of ingenuity to do something with all that data!

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