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

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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