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3 Ingredients to Making Civic Tech Apps Stick

Experts weigh in on ways governments and civic technologists can make apps and technologies last.

For governments gripped tight by budgets and feeling the demand for making IT projects last, creating sustainable civic tech can be a tough trick.

Take the findings of a recent study by app economy research group VisionMobile: that mobile apps fade faster, show fewer prospects for revenue and tend to bounce back when trying to break into the market. According to the analysis, 1.6 percent of all app developers generate most of the revenue while the rest -- assuming the apps are salable -- collect roughly $500 per month per app. 

Considering slim odds of success and application programmer salaries averaged at $80,000-plus per year (and rising), the new trend in the private sector shows an incentive to either generate a barrage of disposable apps — just to see what sticks — or exit the market entirely for more lucrative ventures.

That concept, of course, is a non-starter in government. Unlike the private sector, city halls and state IT offices typically don’t have the luxury of mass producing lineups of “minimally viable” products. Instead, projects go through workflow routines and the bureaucratic process -- the traditional fail safes in government.

With this in mind, three civic tech aficionados -- Adel Ebeid, the chief innovation and information officer of Philadelphia; Jon Sotsky, the director of strategy and assessment at the Knight Foundation, a philanthropic civic tech investment group; and Ash Roughani, founder of the civic developer organization Code for Sacramento (Code4Sac) -- offered advice for officials grappling under initiatives to “be innovative” while simultaneously adhering to protocol. Each has their views of best remedies, however, the trio shared three common tips on what drives lasting civic tech. Here are their thoughts.

1. Apps Need Backing

Ebeid has sought to institutionalize innovation in Philadelphia through city accelerators, a city innovation academy, a number of public-private partnerships and coming Aug. 1, the city’s own civic technology lab that will pair tech sector volunteers with residents for city projects. Out of his experience, he underscores the principle of thinking long-term by linking tech with an active support base -- organizations, and groups or people “deputized” to ensure an app's continued relevance.

As an example, Ebeid shined a light on the site and accompanying app myPhillyRising, a neighborhood events and city resources guide. The app is attached to the myPhillyRising business program in the city and driven by citizens and the community. Because the app is attached to a larger support system, Ebeid said it has flourished as businesses and the community have contributed to it.

“The core principle for us is that we don’t expose a service or an app unless we can sustain it and manage it,” Ebeid said. “So we go into it with that approach in mind and we make sure things are sustainable.”

Approaching civic tech from the stance of a civic developer, Roughani said Code4Sac’s team of hackers typically tries to offer aid to existing organizations in the community as opposed to reinventing the wheel. Procedurally, the team of technologists starts by identifying a local challenge, identifying potential tech remedies, and then connecting with an organization already attempting to solve it.

“If we’re really interested in solving a problem in the community, there’s probably already an organization that’s working on the problem,” Roughani said.  “The biggest thing we think is important is having community partners."

2. Solve a Real Problem

As a group of volunteers attempting to provide a service, Code4Sac gravitates toward solving tangible civic problems. It’s what makes all its after work volunteerism personally fulfilling -- and the knowledge that they're making a difference -- what Roughani calls “the sweet spot." But beyond warm feelings, it’s also what he notices makes an app or piece of technology last longer and amplifies the reach. As such, projects have included working with the city of Sacramento to make budget documents machine readable and collaborating with the California Department of Health and Human Services to launch the state’s first open data portal -- both projects directly connected real world needs and issues.

“Everyone here is working on these efforts in their spare time, these are all passion projects," Roughani said. "People are doing this stuff because they care about it."

Likewise, Ebeid said there is a striking contrast in the lifespan of the app that’s merely “cool” compared to apps that fix problems. 

“I’m all for somebody designing a better mousetrap, but when it’s just cool and fun but you can’t connect the dots to a pain point, it doesn’t bubble to the top,” he said, adding that many of the apps that can be found in the cool-but-not-qualitative category tend to be merely informational. They have little interaction or are narrowly situational -- they exclude users. A flagship app for the city is its Philly 311 app that permits users to report problems to city staff on the fly.

“Our mobile app for 311 is extremely popular,” Ebeid said. “In fact, when it launched, it was one of the most popular apps in the Apple store — which is a very odd for a government app to be that popular.”

3. It Takes a Village

Finally, taking a decidedly analytical approach to world of civic tech, Sotsky at the Knight Foundation has immersed himself in the minutia of the civic tech ecosystem. His recent report on civic tech investment is likely the most comprehensive study of the world of civic tech so far. The report points to social engagement and community discussion as defining attributes for lasting civic tech.

Based on research, Sotsky answered the question of, “What makes civic tech endure?” in four suggestions:

  1. Promote social capital before social impact – The biggest selling point for residents is usually the opportunity to meet new people and form social connections, he wrote. Users must connect informally on more day-to-day issues and develop trust before taking more substantial action related to strengthening their community.
  2. Decision-maker validation – Residents want to know that local government officials and key decision-makers are participating on the civic tech sites and apps and actually considering their feedback so that they’re not just providing “more opinions to ignore.”
  3. Crossing the "critical mass" threshold  - If incorporating an online neighborhood forum in an app, forums must attract a significant number of local residents to benefit from network effects and prove valuable.
  4. Convert chatter into conversation – A key role of civic tech product staff is spotlighting  important topics being discussed on the platform and weaving together related threads so discussion snowballs and users go from raising issues to discussing them with one another.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.