iPhone

Why government wants the iPad to succeed

I’m defending the iPad. Not because I’m an Apple fanboy. Not because I’m going to buy one. But because I think there’s potential to positively change the personal computing experience in a way that helps government sleep better at night. I’m not talking about the iPad itself, but what the App store can become via the iPad.

Currently, the way most us connect to the web is through the browser, which was meant to only take you from point A to B. Unfortunately, the world wide web is a dangerous place if you don’t know how to navigate. Every day, innocent consumers fall prey to malicious scams and phishing schemes, and there isn’t much the government can do to protect them.

With the App Store, not only do you access the internet without going through a browser, but the barriers to entry for service providers should theoretically weed out illegitimate third parties. With a structured vetting process (at least security-wise, theoretically) and a crowdsourced reviewing process, there really isn’t an incentive for virtual predators to get on the App store. For the time being, you could be pretty confident that your apps aren’t trying to steal your personal information or plant bugs into your device.

But the App store is only limited to the iPad and iPhone. Is that enough to really call this a win for internet security?

Yes, the App store is only available to the relatively small number of internet users with pockets deep enough to afford the Apple products. But perhaps, the overwhelming success of the App store would lead Apple to consider expanding to the personal computing platform as an alternative to the browser.

No, the browser is not going to be replaced anytime soon. And internet security on your browser or mobile device will never be completely bulletproof. But for certain types of online activity, such as financial transactions, account creations, or anything that requires personal identifiable information, wouldn’t we feel more comfortable knowing that the servers and personnel on the other side of these transmissions are really who they say they are, and will really do what they say they’ll do?

Developers for Glory

Although it may be simple to conflate the Apps for Democracy and Apps for America contests with the exciting new Apps for Army contest, they really couldn’t be more different. Together they represent an exciting experiment in what it takes to pull communities together around a problem. Though they all offer cash prizes to the winners, they each took a slightly different approach, with different results.

Cash incentives are somewhat controversial in open source circles. Most old-school advocates for open source development strongly prefer developers who are personally invested — famously, those that “scratch their own itch.” Developers who are paid a salary to work on software are also invested, but perhaps less zealously than those who are solving a problem they are afflicted with themselves. Developers who are working for glory and cash prizes, the model used by the “Apps for…”  competitions, is yet another class of developer, and despite the excellent submissions to the previous contests, there are valid concerns that the quality and sustainability of the code is not as good as it could be with a different set of incentives. Time will tell, of course.

If I’m a developer for glory, I may compete for the cash prize, or for altruistic reasons, but I’m also competing for the notoriety I’ll get if I win. If I don’t win, what will I do with the code I’ve developed? Even if I win, what are my incentives to continue working on the project? Put another way: how can we ensure that all of this good work and goodwill turns into viable, and active software projects once the contest is over?

Apps for Democracy is instructive.  The contest encouraged developers to provide services on top of the “platform” of Washington, D.C.’s IT infrastructure. This platform includes 270 public data feeds and the city’s newly unveiled 311 API.  47 submissions were collected in 30 days, and the winner was an iPhone and Facebook application that enabled users to take snapshots of potholes, broken windows, and so forth, have them tagged with GPS coordinates, and submitted to the city’s 311 service. Very handy. Unfortunately, the ongoing care and feeding for the application doesn’t seem to be there. The Washington City Paper found in a January 25th, 2010 followup on the contest:

The “Touch City’s Heart” Social DC 311 Web site seems to have been abandoned—it hasn’t been updated for months—saying the “IPhone” app is still waiting for approval from Apple (Apple approved it long ago). Some members of the D.C. 311 team had never laid eyes on the Web site until City Desk asked about it. “I’ve never even heard of it,” said one 311 operator. It has only 27 active monthly users on its Facebook Fan page and 40 followers on Twitter.

I’ll also note that after some cursory research, the source code doesn’t seem to be disclosed to the public yet, which I understand was one of the intents of the contest. Now, to be fair, there seem to be bigger plans afoot:

The dismal following is not a sign of failure, Sivak says. The District intends to take Social DC 311 and revamp the current model into an app that’s “enterprise-ready and robust for a large volume of users,” Sivak says. “Think of this first step as a pilot.”

Fair enough, but I would think that one of the desired outcomes was an ongoing community of developers that are producing and maintaining applications like this — whether it’s for love, money, or fame. It would be a shame to see hard work like this die on the vine because we’ve lost the carrot of a cash prize.

The first Apps for America contest winner was Filibusted, a tool for outing Senate obstructionists. It measures obstruction by the Senator’s votes on cloture motions. You can find the source on GitHub, but there doesn’t seem to be much activity since the initial checkin. One bug was opened 8 months ago, and doesn’t appear to have been addressed. The last blog post was in December. At the same time, there’s not much to work on — the site has a single purpose, which it seems to fulfil even without much of a community around it. It doesn’t really need a large community, I’d guess, because it’s “done.”

The second Apps for America yielded DataMasher. This tools allows you to compare Federal data sets with each other. Once you have the data and visualization you like, you can share it with others on the site. The source code was released, per the terms of the contest, but doesn’t seem to have much of a community around it. In fact, the DataMasher website doesn’t seem to link to the code from their own site. That hasn’t made the application less popular, though — the community isn’t working on the code, it’s working on the datasets. There’s a steady stream of new mashups that other users rate and comment on. In all, a healthy community that relies on user-generated content to ensure it remains a useful tool.

The second Apps for America contest also produced the strikingly elegant govpulse.us. It’s a vastly improved interfact to the Federal Register developed by the gifted team at GravyCones. The code for this application is available to the public, and seems actively developed to this day. This is, I think, exactly what the organizers had in mind when they started this contest: the tool is popular, the development community is active, and the project continues to improve.

Which brings us to Apps for Army, which is a serious departure from the other contests. First, it’s available only to Army soldiers and civilian employees, nobody from the public — not even reservists. In fact, you need a DoD ID card to go to the official contest website. Second, it seems that only the first 100 teams can participate. From a community standpoint, the project is wading into very unfamiliar territory. Rather than gathering the collective wisdom an initiative of thousands of interested developers, they’ll be picking 100 volunteers, seemingly at random.

The Apps for Army contest further diminishes its potential reach by dictating the tools developers will use: the DISA RACE environment to host the project, and the forge.mil repository for code. Since these resources are being paid for by the Army’s CIO, who is sponsoring the contest, what will happen to the competitors once the competition’s over? There are, of course, excellent reasons for asking folks to use the existing DoD infrastructure, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the doors were flung open, and the bar was lowered for participation.

This isn’t to say that I’m less enthusiastic about these experiments. I’m very excited at the idea of encouraging employees — in the Army, or anywhere else — to solve their own problems. That’s a goodness in and of itself. We just can’t forget that software isn’t a product — it’s a process that requires nurturing. The best way to nurture is to build a community, and that requires transparency and a low barrier to entry for participants. The larger and more active the community, the more likely the software will be better. The more closed, prescriptive, and limited the project, I think, the less likely that it will be viable in the long-term.

So these “Apps for…” competitions are instructive. Each project is building its own kind of community, and I’m eager to see how these projects fare in the months and years ahead.

Citizens out in force with CitySourced

CitySourced is a free iPhone application that lets citizens immediately report civic woes directly to their local government. Users take a photo, select report type, add comments and send. The incident is then directed to the appropriate department. You can download CitySourced here.

San Jose, CA, is the first city to adopt the program. Interested cities can sign up here.

From CitySourced:

CitySourced provides a free, simple, and intuitive tool empowering citizens to identify civil issues (potholes, graffiti, trash, snow removal, etc.) and report them to city hall for quick resolution; an opportunity for government to use technology to save money and improve accountability to those they govern; and a positive, collaborative platform for real action.

Founder and chief architect Jason Kiesel demos at TechCrunch50:

EcoFinder iPhone app blends open data, sustainability

EcoFinder is a free iPhone app that helps San Francisco residents and businesses find recycle locations throughout the city, including electronics, appliance and matresses. Users can filter drop-off/pick-up options by free or pay services.

EcoFinder was created using open data from SF Environment as part of San Francisco’s open data initiative and developed by Haku Wale in partnership with SF Environment, Nextive and AdMob.

Video overview:

MyGovApp: CDTA iRide

MyGovApp is a GovFresh feature showcasing Gov 2.0 applications, including Web, mobile, social networks, etc. Share yours »

App

iRide
CDTA iRide (iTunes)

Founders

CDTA (Rich Fantozzi and Pandav Inc.)

Description

CDTA iRide on your iPhone makes getting around on CDTA buses a breeze. This trip planner covers bus service in Albany, Schenectady, Troy and Saratoga Counties in New York.

CDTA iRide features:

  • a bus system trip planner
  • scheduled arrival data
  • system advisories
  • system and area maps
  • location of nearest bus stops
  • search for bus stops
  • browsing stops by route
  • CDTA phone numbers and links

CDTA iRide plans your trip, calculates fares, finds nearby stops, and shows scheduled arrivals. Never worry about what bus to take when you need to get around!

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