"Shiny app syndrome" and Gov 2.0

Why governments need to start with mobile sites, not native apps.

As citizens turns to the Internet for government information, policy and e-services, government entities necessarily have to respond. Government transparency means using search data to connect with citizens and increasing their findability. It also means “fishing where the fish are,” engaging citizens on Facebook, Twitter or any other place citizens are congregating online. As Gov 2.0 goes local, it will naturally be tempting for state and town governments to create applications for the most popular platforms.

This is not a hypothetical scenario any more. At the recent Govfresh Gov 2.0 conference in Manor, Texas, one of the most compelling conversations circulated around exactly this issue. The archived video from the panel is available here.

The context for the conversation is important, since the decisions made by Texas will serve as a case study for other state governments. Earlier this year, Texas.gov relaunched with a new design and many new features, as detailed by Luke Fretwell at Govfresh. The state also developed a Texas.gov iPhone app to provide access to information and services to its citizens. As iPhone apps go, it’s both handsome and functional.

Where the conversation in Manor got heated, however, was when Texas state government officials revealed that there was no Android or BlackBerry app, nor was there a mobile version of the Texas.gov site. One attendee, CityCamp founder Kevin Curry, asked a simple but important question: Are .gov iPhone apps “empowering the empowered?” Given that such apps require an Internet connection and an expensive iPod Touch or iPhone, do they essentially add to a digital divide? Is this an evolution of the issue that Michael Gurstein raised in September, where open data empowers the empowered?

The consensus of the attendees in Texas was clear: governments should start by building mobile sites to ensure access for the greatest number of citizens. After that, turn to HTML5 to create applications that will work on any device. Below, Manor Govfresh delegate Brownell Chalstrom talks about whether government mobile app development should focus on iPhones, Android or native HTML web apps first:

For an example of what that might look like in the publishing world, check out the public beta for the pocket reference of the O’Reilly mobile HTML5 app. While the W3C may suggest holding off on putting HTML5 into websites until 2011, the bets that Google, Facebook, the New York Times and the AP are making provide ample demonstration of the power of the HTML5 specification right now.

The power of mobile

Why is this important? As Pew Internet researcher Susannah Fox powerfully articulated in her presentation on the power of mobile:

82 percent of American adults have a cell phone. Six in 10 American adults go online wirelessly with a laptop or mobile device. Mobile was the final front in the access revolution. It has erased the digital divide. A mobile device is the Internet for many people.  Access isn’t the point anymore. It’s what people are doing with the access that matters.

These choices won’t be easy. Everywhere you look in the technology world, there’s a new app. Government technology shops, judging by their output, have become afflicted with a kind of “shiny app syndrome,” given that an app is a substantive accomplishment that can be trotted out for officials and the public.

It’s understandable. The rapid growth of the iTunes platform has driven the development of a new mobile application ecosystem. Google, RIM, Palm and BlackBerry have launched competing application marketplaces, although only Android has grown to comparable scale. Just this past week, Apple announced a Mac app store for its computers and Mozilla announced a prototype of an open web ecosystem for its forthcoming app store.

What will the rapid growth of app stores mean for the open web? In some ways, the development pits applications against the World Wide Web itself. Mozilla is trying to create a decentralized app store platform. Apple has the quintessential closed app store platform. Google and Facebook’s app platforms are somewhere in between.

In late 2010, the web does not equal Facebook, though the growth of the social networking giant into the most popular U.S. website shows how for many citizens, it has become an integral part of their online experience. But hyperlinks on the web still matter more than “hyperlikes” on Facebook, at least for the moment, and that’s why the convergence of Google, government and privacy are of critical interest to all citizens.

The complexity of this environment is difficult for even the smartest technologists in the private sector to navigate, much less the relatively slow-moving institutions of government. As they work to apply the power of Web 2.0 to government, government officials will have to choose their investments carefully to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars in a technological deadpool. Tight budgets and limited resources mean those choices have to be smart ones.

The goals that public officials pursue when they create new .gov websites or applications should be based upon civic good. If that civic good is to be rendered to a population increasingly connected to one another through smartphones, tablets and cellphones, truly open governments will employ methods that provide access to all citizens, not just the privileged few.


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