A lesson in unintended consequences from Apple and Civic Apps

According to GCN, Apple has changed some of its rules in a way that is making it harder for cities to create apps through vendors. For example, there’s a civic app See, Click, Fix where citizens can report things like broken street lights or offensive graffiti. (St Paul has it; I’ve used it. It’s slick.) It’s also a plug and play sort of solution for communities where the community doesn’t need to create a new solution. They can build upon the existing tool.

But Apple is making it tougher for communities that use a third party solution – or even a vendor-created solution – to connect with their citizens. Apple would prefer that the communities connect directly with their citizens. That may be feasible for bigger cities but less realistic for smaller communities with limited IT staff. The article explains…

Governments that work with app developers such as CivicPlus or Accela by customizing a template to fit their needs could no longer do that. Instead, they have either build their apps from scratch themselves and assure they don’t share any code with other apps — or go without. For smaller municipalities like Jackson, which has a population of 33,000, the rule pushes them toward the latter.

The rule applies only to apps that run on Apple devices. To use Jackson’s CivicPlus app, Apple users would have to download the main CivicPlus application and then search for Jackson amid the other municipalities the company supports.  Users of Androids or other smartphones would still be able to download apps created through templates. In other words, Jackson would need two apps, which “I thought added to the confusion,” Forgrave said.

They did this to minimize “spam apps” but it turns out a byproduct is hurting civic apps…

Apple issued the rule this summer as part of a refresh of its App Store Review Guidelines and targeted apps that essentially clone others. But the rule undoes much of “progress government has made over the last several years towards better apps, better service, and greater digital competence,” wrote Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, in a September blog post. Her two main concerns are that cities “will no longer own the relationship with their citizens” because services offered in an app will go through companies’ brands, and that the “change will reduce choice and competition.” Under the new policy, if a city wants to switch app vendors, it would end up “promoting a private vendor’s brand,” rather than its own.

“Solving the problem of spam apps is a laudable goal,” Pahlka wrote. “But if we have learned anything dealing with complex policy issues in government, it is that the one law always in effect is the law of unintended consequences. I don’t think Apple set out to disintermediate cities with private vendors, but that is the path we’re going down. In an era where trust in government is already low, I can’t see how that benefits anyone.”

It’s a heads up to communities working on civic apps. It’s also a heads up as we look at rules that impact broadband use to build civic engagement. Corporations have different concerns and goals.

This entry was posted in Government, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s