Mobile apps for government: Three questions to get you moving

One person’s waste is another person’s gold. Take my neighbor, for instance. He moved an old barbecue to the curb a few months ago. I was more than happy to roll it to my house and give it to a friend, who did not have one.

Perspective and context matter, especially in communications. So, I read with some sadness a report looking at the federal government’s efforts to communicate via mobile apps. The critique of federal government apps comes from the organization Citizens Against Government Waste, which recently issued a report that was critical of “duplicative” apps, and the inability to easily discern the true development cost of mobile apps. The report also questions whether it is generally a good policy to build mobile apps specifically for a single platform — for instance, an app that only works on an iPhone.

I do not want to quibble with the report. Nearly all of its assertions are based on the perspectives of the CAGW agenda and that is not really my concern. I was disheartened at the tone of the report, which might suggest that mobile outreach is not necessary. And on that point I heartily disagree. Like with my neighbor’s barbecue, I see value where others see waste.

In my opinion, federal, state and local governments must look for mobile communication opportunities. After all, more than 90% of adults own a cell phone, and earlier this month the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that a quarter of America adults now own a tablet computing device.

Already, DOTs in Michigan, Utah, Washington, Colorado, Georgia, Florida and dozens of others have developed some kind of mobile transportation app. Each has used a different approach to how that information is delivered to the end-user. In addition, states like Colorado and Missouri developed mobile apps to curb drunk driving. Delaware DOT recently launched a mobile app to help drivers prepare for their drivers tests.

The research is clear on this point: the public is mobile and government should be considering how to best meet mobile expectations.

However, I think there are lessons buried in the critique that can be helpful to state, regional and local transportation agencies that might be deciding whether — and how — to develop a mobile app. Let’s just focus on the three issues raised by the anti-waste group — duplication, platform and cost.

Is there a need?
Every useful tool should have a purpose and need. Before deciding whether to build an app, consider whether there is a purpose and need for it. Search the Apple app store, or click-through the Google Play catalog and ask yourself what is missing? Transportation agencies develop data, and data make for great apps, but in most places that data is already publicly available and someone else is already using it. So, then the question is whether the quality of the app is such that your organization has a need or purpose to do it better in order to match the expectations of your customers. It might be necessary to build an app, even if one exists, if that existing app is unreliable, offers data in a way that is difficult to use, or if it reflects poorly on your overall agency due to its unprofessional appearance or usability.

Platform: Android, iOS , Windows 8 or not?
This is an interesting discussion because at one time, iOS was the only mobile operating system worth considering. Just a few years ago, Apple so dominated the market that Android was a curious addition and Blackberry was still a reasonable consideration. Now, Windows 8 rolls out soon and there could be three viable mobile operating platforms. Should you build an app for each? Maybe.

If your app can offer a unique and customized experience based on the subtle differences between operating systems than I think you should seriously consider an app for a specific operating system. But if you are looking for ways to simply deliver information consistently across all platforms, fall back to a mobile-optimized web site that is easily viewed regardless of device.

At what cost?
Mobile apps should not be expensive propositions. True, costs can vary depending on the complexity of information being displayed and the manner in which the back-end data is compiled. But in most cases, a mobile app development is a relatively affordable opportunity. However, they are not free.

Some states have the staff to develop apps “in-house” using existing state resources. This is a luxury for sure. Other states have allowed private companies to develop apps on their behalf. The private companies then generate revenue on advertising sales associated with the app. Other states have simply allowed the free market to meet the public’s demand for mobile information.

Obviously, when private companies assume the risk of developing an app, the government agency gives up some level of control. So, deciding how to afford the development of a mobile app is an important consideration when deciding to move forward with a project.

Your customers are mobile. And the trend toward mobility is growing. It is time to consider your options and pick a path.

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About Lloyd Brown

I am the director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.
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