Imagine your Smartphone could record every pothole you hit while you are in your car… and then get the authorities to fix it. This sounds like science fiction, but is exactly what the citizens of Boston, Massachusetts, can do thanks to a mobile app called Street Bump.
The app uses accelerometer and GPS data from mobile phones owned by volunteers to spot wherever a bump occurs in the course of a vehicle trip.
Single bumps are ignored, but if a bump gets recorded several times in the same place by different mobiles then a road crew is sent to fill in the hole. It is simple when you think about it.
And this is just one of a host of new public sector-related apps that are being developed to improve the lives of citizens worldwide.
“If you think about reaching the citizens that you serve, you basically can reach almost all of them through a mobile app,” he says. “You couldn’t reach them through a PC or even a web-based solution because not everybody went on the Web.”
Finley estimates that delivering services via mobile can allow public sector bodies to reach more than 90 percent of their citizens, compared to around 30 or 40 percent for web-based applications. That includes hard-to-reach sectors such as the very poor or elderly.
The other point about mobile apps is that it allows citizen services to be delivered almost anywhere, anytime, rather than when a user happens to be seated in front of a computer.
“Now you can reach them when they get stranded on the side of the road, or they can reach you,” says Finley. “Or when they are at a town meeting or a soccer field. There is a whole bunch of new things you can do that you couldn’t in the past.”
A good example is the Fish-Hunt-FL app offered by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This lets you buy a hunting or fishing license via your Smartphone, so you can even pick up a permit when you are already out on the water or deep in the country.
Given such obvious benefits, it perhaps seems odd that government bodies are not making even more of the trend for mobile app use. Part of the reason is that these benefits can sometimes be hard to quantify in economic terms.
“Oftentimes the calculations are very soft,” Finley points out. “What is the value of higher engagement with the citizens, or data of where the streets need fixing?”
Justifying the expenditure on the basis of intangible returns can be challenging given the constraints of many public sector budgets. But the good news is that authorities may not need to invest in app development at all.
They can just provide the data, and let the private sector do the developing.
“By publishing information and accepting information from the outside, the government creates the opportunity for somebody to create, say, an application that helps you figure out when the bus is going to arrive,” says Finley.
This is what has happened with the New York subway. The New York City Transit Authority provides basic data on the service and app developers have come up with a range of products to help you catch your train.
The Singapore Land Transport Authority has similarly made taxi data available to developers, spawning a number of apps that can help you get around the city. In both cases, users get a choice of services and the authority saves development cash.
What other public sector service areas could be ripe for development in future? Finley says it makes sense to look for things you use regularly, say each day or each week, such as transport or public health services.
Things you might want to do while on the move is another potentially rich seam for app developers working with public sector data.
The best example of this is perhaps with first responders, where situational awareness is critical for the safety and effectiveness of people arriving on scene.
Those entering potentially life-threatening situations could benefit from information being pushed via apps to their mobile devices, and even more so if the information is coming from Internet of Everything-linked sensors in the vicinity of an incident.
Under such circumstances, a public sector app might not just be handy. It could save lives.