Last week I facilitated a session on mobile apps, for various interested parties. We were joined by Jamie and Mike from the Improvement Service, as well as Gordon and Niall, developers of the Android and iOS apps for the popular Edinburgh My Bus Tracker.
It was a really interesting session, with lots of great ideas thrown around. Below are some of the headlines and common issues.
Native apps vs mobile web
One issue that arose time and time again was the difference between providing native mobile apps, which people download and install to their device, and offering a good mobile experience with your existing web offering. There are many great examples of web content being served up for mobile devices in a clever way – Macmillan’s mobile website being a good example of design that imitates a native app.
But there are many reasons why a native app might be useful – to exploit a device’s hardware, to make full use of location based information, or to provide functionality that doesn’t rely on a permanent web connection. However, the developers around the table were quick to point out that a native app has to have a clear use, and needs to be something that people would come back to. Users typically judge the value of an app in the first 30 seconds of using it. If they’re not impressed by that point, they will most likely delete it or just not bother using it again. There’s also no point building an app which simply mirrors a website’s functionality – serving up static information. That should be left to a well constructed web page which renders itself well on mobile devices.
Jamie Kirk from the Improvement Service delivered a fascinating presentation on mobile usage and the rise of the app, providing various intriguing examples. His overall message was that mobile browsing is indisputably on the ascendancy – it is expected that by 2013, more people will be using mobile devices to access the web than PCs. In fact, Jamie tells us that there are more mobile phone subscriptions in the world than there are toothbrushes. And these advanced devices will continue getting cheaper, meaning more and more people have access to them (including those who can’t afford a computer).
This profound shift in how people are accessing online services will have a massive impact on how we are providing those services and information, and we need to start thinking about this now.
How to build apps
A common concern amongst local gov colleagues is the time and effort that it takes to develop mobile apps. In these days of budget cuts, it is hard (if not impossible) to justify directing valuable funds to such developments. But there are alternatives to an organisation forking out thousands of pounds on a trendy new iPhone app.
Working closely with local developers is perhaps the best option, but raises a vital issue – open data. To build useful local gov apps, developers needs access to useful and usable data. This is a crucial element and is something we need to start doing better. If we get that right, people will have everything they need to build the apps that they, as citizens, see a need for. If we invest in documenting and releasing data in standards-compliant formats, expose that data to the right people, and advertise the problems that we are trying to solve, the people are far more likely to help us solve those problems. A good example of this happening is challenge.gov in the US.
Local universities are also great place to scout for talent – students will often happily take on a project in support of their studies, to gain valuable experience and reputation.
However, the cost and time required to build an app should not be underestimated, and the necessity to design for multiple systems and form factors adds to this exponentially. The developers around the table were unconvinced by app-building competitions, where a prize fund is offered to successful developers. Their concerns were about the amount of time and effort required to submit to such a competition, without any guarantee of a return on investment.
Another aspect discussed was that of crowd sourcing – getting the public to gather data themselves. Obvious examples include allowing residents to report street faults to their local authority. In this instance, the potential of a mobile app is clear – it provides all the functionality needed to log the relevant data (location and perhaps a photo) on a device that is always with you.
Whilst this opens up a lot of exciting possibilities, it also presents challenges for the local authority in terms of how they monitor and deal with these potential new channels of customer engagement.
Just as our efforts on the web must always come with the caveat that “not everyone is on the web”, so too must we remember that web-enabled mobile devices are a long way from ubiquity. Anything we do with these channels must be seen as complimentary to other methods, and not exclusive.
However, web and mobile also opens up new opportunities for reaching out to certain individuals who we may be struggling to reach. An obvious demographic is young people – where possession of a smartphone is likely to be very high, whilst engagement with government may be very low. Innovative use of the web and mobile can offer us new and powerful ways to reach these citizens.
Make it fun
Many of the successful apps we’ve seen recently include an element of gaming, even if the app or task itself is not a game. Foursquare or Gowalla are good examples, where badges and other rewards add a competitive edge to the basic and arguably dull act of geotagging your current location. It’s not hard to think of ways in which this could be incorporated into local gov apps, to encourage engagement and uptake. And local authorities often have good ties with local businesses to offer prizes, to further attract interest.
The risk of success
Something interesting happened when the Edinburgh BusTracker service got really popular during the extreme weather of Winter 2010, it started putting unexpected pressure on the servers responsible for delivering the data, ultimately leading to performance issues and the need to expand capacity. This is an important aspect to consider when building such functions, or allowing others to do so. Through limiting access to an API, and retaining the right to withdraw that access (even if just temporarily), we can mitigate some of that risk.
These points simply scratch the surface of the challenges we face in becoming mobile-friendly, and there are no doubt many more elements to consider. There is definitely a groundswell of interest, though, as well as a growing demand from the public, making for interesting times for anyone involved in making sure their services are ready to go mobile.
Jamie is off to the US in a few days to conduct research into mobile and government. Follow his adventures at howappt.com.
iPhone photo by yum9me – shared under the Creative Commons license.