I was following an interesting debate on Twitter about a recent BBC article pointing out that the UK government would have spent too much money developing iPhone applications, when it occurred to me that a client I talked to recently mentioned the development of an iPhone app. This was outside the UK and concerned the ability for citizens to take a picture of a pothole or some other problem, send it to the Department of Public Works and be able to track when the problem would be fixed.
I remember that I discussed different aspects with the client, including whether there could be any issue with not supporting other smartphones (such as Android or Windows based) and what the impact on both citizen expectations and internal processes would be. On the former he did not seem to be particularly concerned, as people already have the ability today to report a problem through the web, and any mobile browser would do. On the latter, though, he seemed considerably more concerned, especially with the quantity and quality of information they would receive. What if people start submitting all sort of pictures, including those that do not concern any problem? What if this is so successful that they are overwhelmed with reports? And what if a reported problem is not fixed quickly enough and a constituent just calls his elected council member to complain?
All this makes me reflect that for how cool iPhone apps can be, it is difficult to articulate their actual value for government. It seems to me that governments risk losing both ways. If the app were not successful, people would criticize government for wasting money. If it were, but processes and technology were not in place to smoothly manage its impact, people would criticize government for not being responsive and for wasting money.
So what should governments do? Well, just step back and think that iPhone is a consumer choice. So why shouldn’t those same consumers who are eager to use the iPhone get an application developed and be made responsible to develop the processes that are required to allow government to use it at no extra cost? If I take the pothole example, why shouldn’t a citizen community be responsible for commenting upon and rating the problems reported by iPhone app users, so that government can access to information that has been partially vetted and assured by the community?
We can’t ask to have a government that is lean, cheap, innovative and citizen-oriented government all at the same time. If we want the thrills and frills of new consumer technology we have to engage and help government make the best use of it, at an affordable cost and risk.
The BBC article is probably right: just developing iPhone apps is hard to justify. But those who criticize the article are also right in pointing out that government cannot stand still on this. So why not taking the AppsForDemocracy idea to the next level? Let’s have communities both develop application and help manage their impact: I believe it is a fair trade.
The answer to the question in the title might be: No, governments should not develop iPhone apps, the community should.