Interview: Government Apps For Citizens Sometimes A Bad Investment
Q: Robert, you've taken the somewhat unpopular stance that government should be much more conservative in investing in technology that "serves" citizens. Why is that?
Robert Bacal: It's pretty simple. We live in an era where it's easy to forget that we should use technology when it accomplishes something important, and not just because it exists. With the huge hype on mobile and social media, there's a tendency to spend a lot of taxpayer money on technology that is ultimately, a "frill", while at the same time, slashing real employees.
Q: Since we're talking about apps for mobile here that are made for government customers and citizens, are you seeing bad decisions and investments?
Robert Bacal: Yes. Some. For example, there's a list of the "most entertaining government apps" and while it's great to have things be fun, is it the role of government to entertain? I wonder if those apps that made the list actually came from some sound business reasons for the agencies that created them.
Q: Can you give an example of an app that makes sense, and why?
Sure. There's an app produced by Arlington National Cemetary that helps visitors find the sites for their loved ones, or for that matter anyone else located there. Beyond that it helps people navigate a large space so they can get there efficiently, and given visitors may be quite emotional, if they can do this stuff without frustration, without paper maps, and without having to ask scarce employees, to me that's phenomenal.
The app really can make a difference, and not only that, it's conceivable that it can custom the costs for the cemetery.
Q: What about an app that shouldn't have been created?
There's an app created by US Census Bureau that provides real time economic data via mobile. Sounds cool, until you think about it. First, it duplicates existing resources on their websites, that CAN be accessed on mobile anyway. If it's not perfectly displayed on mobile screens, it's relatively trivial to fix that in the website code without investing huge dollars in a mobile app. It really makes no sense.
Another example, and one most will argue about is the NASA Space News app, which is probably the most popular mobile app from government. It's also highly rated. But here's the catch. One could argue that it helps educate on space exploration, but again, isn't this information available already on mobile enabled websites? Or is this a PR move, perhaps to try to pry more funding for the program?
Q: So what you are saying is that if an app duplicates some existing resources, and it's not absolutely necessary to have something tailored for mobile, it's best NOT to do it?
Robert Bacal: Indeed. Or, as is the case with the Arlington Cemetery, the app that provides information essential to the mission of the agency, AND there's a need to make that information available "on site"...that makes superb sense.
Q: Final question: Any Idea what it costs for a government agency to produce a top quality app?
Robert Bacal: No. I've been looking around for numbers but haven't found any. I've seen estimates based on private sector of between $5,000 to up to $300,000, and it's probably much more, since the government has much more stringent security and privacy rules it must follow, and incorporate into their apps.
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