Is your city or county thinking about building an official mobile app? If so and you’re at a loss on where to begin, IT experts from two California cities have some tips to keep in mind before taking the plunge into smartphone app development.

Philip Mielke, interim CIO of Redlands, Calif., said knowing your audience and being mindful of simplicity are two of the top things IT personnel should consider at the outset of any app project.

Instead of blindly building an app, Mielke encouraged local governments to evaluate what devices residents are using to access online services and plan around those statistics.

Seven Mobile App Development Tips

• Keep it simple — Don’t overdo it. The app should mean one thing when you publicize it. Multiple functions may require a separate app or system.

• Be open to ideas — Engage other departments in the design and functionality of the app.

• Know your audience — The Internet is accessed more frequently via mobile solutions by people below the poverty line (due to the low initial price point). You’re involving a new group and need to plan your outreach accordingly.

• Make it relevant — Know what functions and issues are of concern to the community and make your app more than just a problem reporting program.

• Location, location, location — If your app doesn’t have a spatial component to it and you don’t have an ability to extract GIS information from the app, you’re more than missing the boat — you don’t know where the water is.

• Data integration — Make sure the mobile app can feed into your existing work order or dispatch systems. You don’t want to waste staff time trying to bridge systems.

• Cross-platform support — Don’t leave two-thirds of your public unable to interact with their local government easily because you decide to only develop on one platform.

Sources: Philip Mielke, interim CIO of Redlands, Calif.; Ingrid Bruce, GIS/special districts manager for Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

“Smartphones are becoming the access to the Internet for somebody who doesn’t have high income and is below the poverty line,” Mielke said. “Smartphones are twice as accessible as laptops for an Internet connection because there is a lower entry fee to work with it.”

Redlands partnered with CitySourced in launching its 311 app two years ago. Now 65 percent of its citizen complaints are received through the program. The number of complaints that Redlands gets has increased since the app went online, but Mielke said that’s likely due to the much simpler complaint process enabled by the mobile device.

Like other 311 apps out there, users start the Redlands app, take a picture and the program prompts the person to enter information. The photo is then geo-tagged and sent to the appropriate person within the city to handle the situation.

Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., took a somewhat similar approach in regard to knowing its audience. City personnel spent time designing an app that catered to the full range of citizen needs. After about a year of development between the city and vendor CyberTech, the result was the RC2GO mobile app. It launched Feb. 15.

Rancho Cucamonga’s app has a reporting function, but it also serves as a means to promote businesses and tourism and share information with people about various city services.

“Quite frankly, I see the future of mobile apps in local government as being very robust and positive,” wrote Rancho Cucamonga City Manager John Gillison in an email to Government Technology. “The development of truly portable and affordable mobile devices, combined with apps that can do single or multiple functions, offers a real potential for cost savings and efficiency improvements as we move away from big mainframe applications and bulky laptop computers.”

In an interview with Government Technology, Solomon Nimako, senior GIS analyst with Rancho Cucamonga, said from the outset Gillison had the entire vision of what the app should be. While it’s currently only available for the iPhone, Nimako said the city is working on an Android version for release by the end of 2012.

Ingrid Bruce, GIS/special districts manager for Rancho Cucamonga, said one of the most important tips is to engage a wide variety of personnel in the app’s design.

The app’s development team solicited comments and feedback from a variety of city departments and businesses to make sure the app was an effective tool for everyone — not just a standard 311 app with bells and whistles. Bruce believes that cities will follow Rancho Cucamonga’s lead and abandon standard 311 apps in favor of multiuse programs that help promote city amenities and other services.

“It’s a negative connotation to just have [the reporting function],” Bruce said. “People would tend to report more things that were wrong as opposed to letting you know things that are going right using the app.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.