Saturday, January 16, 2010

Can Government Do Beta? Direct.gov Travel News

201002022235.jpgThe most popular paid-for application in the iTunes Application store (a tie in to the recently released Modern Warfare 2 game) has been reviewed 406 times. Nearly as many people love it (138, 5 stars) as hate it (153, 1 star). For an application to get to the top of the list, I'm guessing it must be downloaded thousands of times, perhaps even tens of thousands (and MW2 has sold millions so that's easily possible in this case). So it's the unspoken thousands who don't give their view that have got it to the top of the list.

The top free application, Lego Photo, has received 3,690 reviews for the current version. In this case, 699 people love it and 1581 hate it. So you can get to the top of the charts even with a 1:2 skew of love:hate. Again, doubtless tens of thousands of people have downloaded this and said nothing.

Which brings me to Direct.gov's Travel News application, number 20 in the list of most downloaded free applications. The current version has 1009 ratings, with only 84 loving it and 542 hating it. For all versions, the total skew is worse: 192 loved it and 1316 hate it. If you were to count one and two stars as hating it and four and five as loving it with the three stars unable to make up their mind, then just over 300 loved it whilst 1700 hated it, still a 1:5 love:hate ratio.

The text of the reviews is generally scathing - comments about it having no information outside of London, or defaulting to London information are common; there are reports of crashes, poor performance; requests for the raw database. There are even suggestions that the positive reviews are "developer planted" and a comment that "Gordon Brown must have written this".

I've tried it out and it's true that there are some glitches but it largely does what it's supposed to do. On opening, the app asked to use my location and then guessed that I was in the "Yorkshire and Humber" region - that's the developers trying to overcome the accusation of London bias perhaps.

Correcting that and asking to do a search for all transport problems of all types in London produces a huge (hundreds?) cluster of pins in London, as you'd expect - it's a big place, there are bound to be problems. But clicking the location button zoomed right in to where I live, and then you can pinch to zoom out and see what's happening nearby. Is this what people want from an app?

I don't know - perhaps I'd be more interested if I could do a "from/to" entry and it would tell me how screwed up planes, trains and automobiles were along my route. And I'd certainly like a "time sorted" feature - that is, what are the issues right now (as opposed to seeing that there was going to be night maintenance on the M4 later in the week).

On my wireless network it certainly wasn't the quickest application I've used but, then again, it's searching across a wide area and I rarely need to get instant information on traffic problems and so would be content with a slight delay. Filtering to issues right now, within a radius of where I am - or just along my "from/to" line, would perhaps speed things up.

Just to be sure, I checked traffic conditions in "Yorkshire and Humber" and it seemed to know what was happening there - don't travel on the A161 near Scunthorpe, it's closed at Epworth.

It was in May last year that I looked to see which governments were doing iPhone apps, and challenged direct.gov to get theirs into production. So they've responded - not because I challenged them of course, but because it's inevitably the right thing to do (any platform with millions of users must surely see government presence - and there are already versions of this app for other platforms such as Android). And they've picked travel information, which is an obvious thing to do given that when you're out and about you're unlikely to suddenly think about whether you can claim benefits.

So what next?

  • I'd update the direct.gov mobile pages to reference the application. The mobile page refers to this at the moment:
    • Journey planner

      Check Directgov Mobile before you set off for the latest travel and transport information. As well as travel alerts for public transport and roads around the UK, you can search for scheduled train departure and arrival times.

  • I'd start using the direct.gov blog to respond to the feedback that people are taking the time to leave - Craig Manson (credit to him) is responding to some of it but I'd want to see more there about what else is coming, both for this application, and others; I think you have to drive the responsiveness rather than wait for it to hit. The comment traffic is low, especially compared with the reviews left on iTunes, so I'd include text in the into to the app pointing people to the blog and try and get the feedback left there, given you can't comment on the iTunes reviews directly
  • Publish what your app cost to develop - and what your future budget for mobile apps is. I wouldn't run from this - someone will FoI it anyway and you'll have to let people know. I don't expect you to have hired someone in his bedroom to code this for you of course, but I'd still like to know what kind of muscle you are putting behind this
  • As one commenter said, why not open up the transportdirect database and let other people have a go. If no one takes you up on the offer, you've at least made it and provided a route in - and no one can complain that you haven't. If others do have a go, and develop a better app or add features that you haven't thought of, you could co-brand with them, offer support and test out the power of the crowd at the same time
  • Recognise that almost anything government does online is going to come in for flak. When I started - and worked with the team to put Self Assessment online - we got a hard time including front page newspaper stories, above the fold. Some of it was justified, some of it wasn't. You roll with it and keep working to improve the initial offer. I'd like to see government tag more things as "beta" just as google does and be allowed to get away with experiments (it's not the first time I've said this, see this post from July last year and this from November 2008). If the private sector doesn't get it right first time, there's no way that government is going to - despite all the complaints about spending taxpayer money the people government employs are also the people that the private sector employs.It seems funny that 10 years on this is still the case but it is and so you've got to keep working to make both the initial delivery more solid and to iterate faster so as to show responsiveness.
Not a bad first attempt direct.gov team. I hope the torrent of feedback hasn't put you off and you'll keep fixing the bugs, iterating the app and showing that you can respond quickly to that feedback.

1 comment:

  1. Sharon Cooper8:21 am

    Thanks for the feedback, we're certainly not put off by it.
    <span></span>
    We've taken on board some of the earlier comments and improved the app, by changing to native components to speed it up and load the map pins more quickly, adding the ability to remove saved favourites, putting the zoom buttons back on the map, removing London as the default favourite, setting region centres so when searching for region it centres on that region and putting timeout on data downloads. We've also added an FAQ page to explain some issues to users. This update is currently with Apple for review.

    The mobile page on Direct.gov.uk is in the process of being changed to include information on the app.

    Unfortunately the agreements with the travel information providers mean that we can't open up some data, but government and public sector data will be made available on data.gov.uk.

    We have a budget for apps and would welcome ideas on other apps that would make a difference to people.

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