SoLoMo: How governments are engaging their constituents

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By John Craig

My firm, Purple Forge, has developed a meaningful relationship as a supplier of mobile applications to governments at the municipal and federal level over the past two years. Given the integration of social and location-based information into our applications, we have been the defacto leader in implementing what is termed SoLoMo (or Social, Mobile, Local) with these institutions and borne witness to their trials and successes in leveraging mobile technology to engage with their constituents.

SoLoMo: Powered by open data

The past four years have seen an incredible demand for governments to move towards “open data,” whereby they can stream municipal and federal data into the public’s hands permitting them to create “mashup” applications that, for example, can juxtapose police crime reports against neighborhood maps. And while I always suspected that neighbor who never mowed his lawn or opened his curtains was growing weed in his basement, open data managed to confirm it!

This mashup trend first materialized on websites, and over the past two years, as mobile devices became the preferred mechanism for accessing the Internet, has become the basis of mobile application contests. Here the municipality or government runs a competition to see who can make the best mobile application out of the open data sources they have released to the public.

Where mobile application contests fall short

The attractive nature of mobile application contests is that for a very small financial incentive, the government can have some very cool apps quickly created for its citizens that showcase the data it has released.

The underlying issue with the contests is that governments have a fiduciary duty to their citizens to provide services year round.  The challenge with mobile applications is that Apple, BlackBerry and Android are constantly updating their operating systems, and Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps and YouTube are always changing the application programming interfaces (known as APIs) that developers need to make the mashups work with the available open data.

This implicit volatility in mobile application development means that the application developed for the competition often breaks not long after the prize is handed out. The altruistic view is that the winning developer will take pride in updating their app. The reality is that app winners will often return to their regular jobs or move onto other contests without any further economic incentive to drive them to maintain their app. This means that mobile application competitions fail the test of providing sustainable, year round service to citizens.

This implicit volatility and the expense required to hire, train and maintain in-house resources across multiple mobile device types has become a barrier for many governments in deploying mobile applications. This is an issue we have helped a number of governments overcome.

Keys to SoLoMo success for governments

Governments that have been successful in deploying mobile applications, and evolving them within the turbulent world of mobile application development have focused on three key things. The first is sustainable app-development techniques to avoid the issues caused by the constant churn of operating systems and third party APIs in the application development world. The second is opening up quality data that has daily meaning to its constituents. And the third is effectively marketing those services to their constituents.

Sustainable mobile application development can be obtained at expensive per project rates from custom application development houses, or affordable software-as-a-service firms. Our approach is a hybrid of the two, permitting custom flexibility residing on robust application templates.

Choosing the right data to publish through a mobile application is also key.  Services that are frequently accessed through the web are good starting points, and particular attention should be paid to metrics around what services are being accesses through mobile browsers.  These are the services you want to focus your application development on.

Build it and (hope) they will come approaches to mobile application marketing are a waste of time. You have to market your apps to the public, and that means news releases and integration into traditional print and TV advertisements, as well as using the latest social media approaches.

Case studies in success: Calgary and Regina

Both Calgary and Regina have used our mobile app service platform to sustainably develop applications for their citizens while our firm takes care of all the “rocket science” behind producing mobile apps.

In Calgary’s case, this has allowed them to focus on building apps with the open data Calgarians want to consume, and marketing it in a timely and effective fashion. The most popular app deployed to date as been the Calgary Road conditions application that not only alerts Calgarians when there is a parking ban in effect because of a snowfall, but also showcases the GPS locations of the plows and street cams so they can see the conditions of roads in their community before they set out on the road.

The application has been heavily marketed using traditional media such as newspapers and radio, and through social media channels such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Regina enjoyed a different kind of success with its CityApp as it proved effective during a community emergency. When the water treatment plan had a failure, our mobile application service was used to send push notifications with a boil water advisory out to constituents using the app.  In turn, users of the app could share the boil-water advisory information and updates with their friends using email, Facebook and Twitter and lead to the app spreading in a more viral fashion.

Next-gen SoLoMo: Responding to incoming service requests

A trend that’s also becoming more apparent is how cities are finding out about accidents and issues more quickly through social media than through traditional media or even their internal communications systems. GPS-tagged accident reports are being shared on Twitter before 911 calls are being placed.

So while SoLoMo becomes one way of getting valuable information out to the public, it also creates a new challenge for the government to be able to keep pace with the new speed at which incoming information can be received and handled.

This bi-directional and soon to be transactional nature of SoLoMo is opening up a whole new era in constituent communications for governments around the world.

John Craig is the co-founder and VP of Sales and Marketing for Purple Forge.

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