April 30, 2012 By Colin Wood
The demand for mobility is burgeoning, and as agencies plan their own mobile apps or Web portals, they often find themselves with more questions than answers.
Mobile apps promise to increase productivity and save time and money — heck, the work will practically do itself. A well designed app can cure warts and baldness, make project leaders run faster and jump higher. Amid these grand claims and true success stories from governments with developed mobile presences, many agencies tread carefully toward their mobile futures, hoping to avoid the mistakes others have made.
One lesson governments have learned is that creating a nice-looking, easy-to-use app isn’t enough. These apps must seamlessly integrate into the agency’s back-end systems — otherwise they create more work for employees who must manually re-enter the information submitted through the app into the appropriate system or workflow.
“I think what you’re seeing is a lot of the customers focusing on the end-user perspective,” said David Nero, technology director for the city of Boston. To be sure, thinking about the user is important, he said, but agencies can’t ignore the back-end operations that support the end-user experience.
Boston has moved into the mobile space aggressively, launching services like Citizen’s Connect, which lets smartphone users report potholes and other problems to the city. Along with these new apps have come dramatic upgrades to the systems behind them.
“Boston has had to almost turn over its infrastructure,” Nero said. “What I learned fairly quickly was all the demand — storage, network bandwidth; we were really taxing that part of the organization. It doesn’t get a lot of publicity because who cares about storage? Who cares whether your servers are virtualized or not?” But those things turn out to be very important.
There are new options for addressing those needs, Nero added, such as software as a service or infrastructure as a service, that ought to be considered. Because technology changes and demand grows so quickly, it’s important to invest in flexible, scalable infrastructure.
Those investments can make or break an agency’s mobile strategy — if users are frustrated by low speeds or other technical issues, it won’t matter how great an app is. Where traditional IT organizations have focused on operations, there’s been a culture shift toward using innovation to meet customer needs, he said. “Traditional IT organizations are really battling against this.”
Robust back-end development isn’t just for users — it ensures that an organization doesn’t wind up chasing its tail. While searching for vendors for Salt Lake City 311, the city’s CIO, Bill Haight, said most vendors’ claims of comprehensive back-end integration fall short of the mark. “We found that those interfaces, where they did actually exist, were rudimentary at best,” Haight said. “We believe that it is doing a disservice to our people to put a system out there that essentially only sends them an email or that they have to actually go back and do a whole bunch more work.”
Salt Lake City chose Accela for its mobile 311 deployment based on the company’s back-end integration capabilities, Haight said. The Salt Lake City 311 app sends the user’s location, either via geotagging or manual entry, along with the service request to the city and the information is automatically entered into the system and routed to the correct employee based on geographic location.
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