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Launching a Mobile App in Government Part 1

By: Amy Larsen, Client Success Consultant at GovDelivery Smartphones

Navigating the land of mobile application development can be a challenge, even for government agencies with sizeable budgets and plenty of talented resources.  After you overcome the hurdles of planning, development, and testing your app, you’ll have to decide how to launch, market, maintain and drive more adoption. With all of these obstacles, the path to the end goal of giving your stakeholders more mobile options to connect with your programs and services may seem too difficult to even contemplate, but for those willing to take on the challenge, the results can make an incredible impact for stakeholders of any organization.

To make things easier, we’ve put together a few considerations for public sector agencies planning their mobile strategy in 2014.

1)     Do you need an app for that?
Over the last few years, the public sector app space has become increasingly crowded, with more apps and more choices than most citizens would know what to do with. Some cities and agencies have even launched their own app stores, where open data and open source projects are available for any developer to build on and further contribute to the expansion of available apps. The Mobile Apps Gallery on USA.gov showcases hundred of apps developed with public data, most of which are available for no cost to stakeholders. But apps should not be viewed as a silver bullet solution to engagement. Sometimes what you’re looking to accomplish might be a better fit for other channels.  One channel often used for mobile strategy is SMS. King County, WA’s recent SMS campaign allows people to receive updates for local health insurance education events. Another impactful mobile option is an email campaign optimized for mobile devices, making it easier for people to get information on a regular basis without having to actively access your app. Before you dive headlong into an app development process, you may want to consider some of the most simple and accessible mobile options for solving stakeholders’ problems. Committing to a successful app rollout will demand resources and maintenance for years to come, and you want to ensure you’re getting the biggest bang for your technology buck.

2)     Know your goal

Before you start your app development process, you’ll need to have a goal in mind. Often, you won’t be able to provide every service that a citizen or employee might find on your website through an app. Instead, focus on the top needs of your users or employees– updating licenses, scheduling appointments, checking on permit status, reporting local issues, etc. A good place to start may be tracking your most visited pages on your website, or finding where the most time is being spent on customer service related issues. Solving a problem, or a set of problems, with your app will be key to ensuring it is adopted and utilized by your target stakeholders once it is launched.

3)     Native, Web and Hybrids, oh my

Your team will have to decide on the app format that will work best for your target audience. The 3 most common types of apps include native apps (which live on your device) web apps (which live on the web) and hybrid apps (a cross between a native and web app). You may not want to require users to have a strong Internet connection to access your app, but you may also not want to have to develop your application for multiple operating systems and continuously release new version across different platforms (think Apple, Android, and Windows operating systems). The key to determining which type of app will work best for your audience is to decide on key functionality – will the app content be dynamic, or will it be fairly stable between versions? Will users need to use your app in places where Internet access is limited? Do you have the resources to update the app on multiple platforms? Answering these questions can point you in the direction of the type of app that will work best for your stakeholders.

4)     Leverage local talent

Hackathons, or other events designed to bring developers, designers and others in the software development field together to work on creative solutions to civic challenges, are popping up in cities across the globe. These events often encourage developers to work with public open data to create applications, either for use by the public, or to help government employees solve some specific challenges. Hackathons and coding events often focus on getting a basic application structure in place, not necessarily producing a finished product. You’ll also need to have some data available and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) ready to receive the requests that your developers send through their newly minted apps. Alameda County, CA, now in its third year of hosting a Hackathon, has a helpful page established to promote and engage with local talent, as well as provide instructions and incentives for individuals who may be interested in participating in its upcoming Hackathon.

5)     Collaborate to succeed

Sometimes, reinventing the wheel with your own app might just be the wrong way to go, especially if there are apps already available on the market that are familiar and preferable to your audience and accomplish a similar goal. Where possible, try to plan your app development strategy with key players from other departments, or even other agencies in the public and private sector that are either planning or have already launched an app that your stakeholders use. This ensures that your offerings are unique and best serving the needs of your stakeholders. Talk to similar agencies who have had success with existing apps on the market – it’s possible that there may be a vendor who has an app available that does exactly what you’re looking for, which may allow you to skip the development phase all together. For instance, the City of Boston plans to make its popular Street Bump app (which helps drivers report potholes as their phones “feel” significant bumps as they drive) available to other agencies and programmers to utilize and further develop. GovLoop may be a good place to start connecting with other innovators in the public sector who are working on similar projects to solve their own challenges.

With proper planning, public sector agencies have great potential to create game changing tools for the mobile world, which could be critical for improving civic engagement and bettering lives. In part two of this series, we will talk more about launching a successful app, and what government agencies can do to make sure their apps will be adopted and utilized by their target audiences.