I had a very interesting conversation the other day regarding the challenge of government mobile apps in the age of open data.
The example used was the EmergencyAUS app, which has been developed by Gridstone Pty Ltd.
As an app created by a commercial entity, EmergencyAUS aggregates emergency information released by a variety of state and federal agencies and presents it through a single interface.
The public can also take photos of emergencies and share them through the app. Best of all the app is free to use
Alongside this, Australian governments have also released mobile apps related to disasters and
emergencies. Federally there is Disasterwatch, released by the Attorney-General’s Department, which also aggregates emergency information from a variety of state and federal agencies.
At state level there’s several emergency apps now available, but particularly notable is the Victorian Country Fire Association’s CFA FireReady app.
This is available across all major mobile platforms and while it focuses on Victorian fire emergencies (including backburning), it also allows the public to take photos of emergencies and share them through the app. These photos can even be used by the CFA to help inform their staff regarding developing issues.
Essentially the commercial app and government apps are competing. They all aggregate information from openly released emergency and disaster data and all have a similar aim – to help inform Australians of critical events occurring near them or near their families and friends.
Generally governments in Australia take the position that they do not compete in providing services where commercial entities are prepared to do so. They essentially try to minimise where they compete with private enterprise.
So this example raises some clear issues. As government releases more data in reusable formats (open data), there are likely to be more commercial entities who use this data to create mobile apps or other services.
So should governments stop making apps for this data, and leave the field to commercial entities?
Should governments restrict themselves to apps for data that doesn’t have commercial value?
Should governments continue to compete against private firms in creating apps?
To answer these questions I think it is vital for government to begin to think about mobile apps (and websites for that matter) as strategic assets and infrastructure rather than costs or PR tools.
Mobile apps as infrastructure
Government built the telephone network in Australia because it was not commercially viable for a private player to invest in this type of infrastructure. We’re now repeating this process with the NBN. We did the same with roads, electricity networks, water networks, the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and other core infrastructure.
However past a certain point it became viable – even desirable – to sell some of this infrastructure to private concerns, with appropriate legal safeguards in place (such as foreign ownership in Qantas and Telstra’s universal service obligation).
To develop some new infrastructure governments began looking at public private partnerships – such as toll roads and utilities such as ActewAGL (the ACT’s electricity provider).
These have either taken the form of co-investment in development, and co-ownership in some fashion, or the form of complete private ownership, with the government simply providing incentives, support or ideas to the private sector.
Finally there’s infrastructure that government has been totally hands-off during development – such as for mobile networks and for virtual infrastructure including search engines.
Mirroring these to mobile apps (or websites), there’s five categories for government to consider:
- Critical – apps which governments consider core to its ongoing business and therefore both creates and maintains, retaining ownership on an indefinite basis (though commercial entities may create their own versions).
ie: Emergency management apps, train/tram/bus timetable apps
- Very important – apps which governments believe must be provided and will make, however are not critical for them to own on an ongoing basis, and therefore may sell to private concerns (with appropriate distribution and maintenance conditions and perhaps a ‘resumption’ clause if the private concern ceases development)
ie: Traffic or toilet map apps.
- Important – apps which governments prefer are developed, but are only prepared to partially invest in – via partial funding or other support or a partnership with private entities.
ie: Crime statistic/locations, parliamentary information or library/gallery works apps.
- Interesting – apps that governments find interesting, but not worth investing in. In this case they may release the ideas and data for the apps and leave up to private enterprise to develop – or not.
ie: Sports field locator or health information apps.
- Uninteresting – apps which government doesn’t care (from a public benefit perspective) whether they are created or not and leave entirely to the private sector.
ie: most apps you’ll find in app stores
Based on this model government agencies need to think about the criticality of a particular app to their core business and act accordingly, treating the apps as an infrastructure investment.
Here’s examples of my thinking.
Emergency and disaster apps can be considered critical public safety tools, provided by governments to ensure citizens are informed and supported in times of crisis.
As a core function of government, while private sector organisations may also develop them, agencies would still develop and maintain good quality apps to ensure public safety and information concerns are met.
While commercial entities may develop similar apps, this is not a reason for government to cease maintaining its own, as the government must ensure that a service is provided to the community and commercial entities may stop maintaining – or even withdraw from sale – their apps at any time, leaving a gap that the government’s apps will continue to fill.
Very important apps
Traffic apps, while very important for managing traffic congestion and supporting productivity, are not core to the responsibilities of government agencies, but offer significant public value.
Therefore governments would develop these apps, but potentially may sell them to private concerns to maintain and profit from, with provisos that they deliver a certain quality of information and, should the private company decide to stop maintaining the app, the code and app go back to the agency (like an exploration lease for minerals).
The sale of these apps should be considered a cost-recovery exercise as well as pricing the value of the service to the community, ensuring that the public receive some return for the value transferred from public to private hands.
Parliamentary information apps, such as ones providing Hansard feeds and information on proposed laws and parliamentary schedules are useful and important to government, however are not essential, or very important to government. Hence it makes sense for government to contribute to the development of these apps – financially or through support – however government shouldn’t invest in their creation.
Co-investment might be done through grants or matching funds – such as if a private entity ran a Pozible or Kickstarter fund raising activity and an agency agreed to match up to $X dollars raised.
Support might include access to key individuals, research or data which would support the creation of these apps, or promotion of them through Ministers and agency media contacts and networks (potentially with a level of endorsement).
Interesting apps, such as one providing the location of all sports fields in a city, might be suggested by a council or agency as an idea, based on data they’ve released or an identified community need. A paper prototype or business case prepared, but rejected, within the agency may even be released to flesh out and provide context and direction for the app. However agencies and councils would not deem these apps important enough to co-invest in or support, leaving it up to the private sector whether to take on and own the idea or not.
Charging for mobile apps
Another consideration for governments is whether they should charge for apps they create and manage.
I have mixed views on this. There are definitely services that government provides as ‘user-pays’. Why should people who don’t use the app share in paying for its development and maintenance?
Charging for an app can also provide some funding for its maintenance and improvement over time – very useful where government agencies provision for app development, but have a time limit on funding for it to be maintained and improved, updated to reflect changes in mobile operating systems or even released on new platforms as they emerge.
However in many of these cases the mobile app may not be core to government service provision and potentially could be provided by the commercial sector rather than the public. Perhaps it should be sold off, or left to private hands rather than maintained by government.
If there’s a mobile app that your agency is considering charging users to buy or use, perhaps, instead, it is a candidate for sale to a commercial entity to run and maintain, with the sales price being the value of the app.
Or if it is core for government agencies to provide as part of their service mix, should it really be charged for?
When having a discussion in your agency regarding whether you should make a mobile app, or leave it to the private sector to do – or are thinking about charging users a fee to buy or use your app – it is useful to consider the five categories above and into which your mobile app fits.
If the app is core to your agency’s operations it should probably be developed and managed under your agency’s watchful eye. If it isn’t core, you should think about how important it is and use this to frame your decision on whether to build it yourself, support a private entity to do so or simply give the idea away.