Thursday, January 21, 2010

Apps On the Move - What Does .Gov.UK do Next?

Sharon Cooper, from direct.gov, stopped by to comment on my last post on the Travel News App. Apart from confirming that the team are working hard to make changes in response to feedback [speedy response, and good to see], Sharon said:

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

So here are the apps that I think government needs to get working on for mobiles:

1. The Mobile 777 app

Back in early 2003, I posted this

Matt alerted me back then to something he'd heard about a plan to create an 888 number - just like 999 but for those things that weren't emergencies. That might mean everything from a cat in a tree to a pothole in a road to a zebra crossing light being broken. Nothing has emerged on such a number and, try as I might, I haven't found anything that relates to it.

Now, imagine if the 888 service was web, phone, SMS text, DTV and kiosk integrated - so that no matter what level of income you had or what devices you had access to, there would be a way to get to it. People would report issues to the 888 service, all of which would be logged.

The output would be a colour coded map of your postcode, your street, your borough, your town or your county, showing the issues being raised in your area. So if a particular road had holes in it and the local people were suitably mad, they'd get together, contact 888 and the map would glow flashing red. The local council seeing that they had a community of interest that was on their case would despatch the road fixers. Take this a little further forward and say there's a 777 service (or maybe still the 888 one) that lets you express concern about fox hunting, people who wear furs, drink driving or whatever ... interest groups could drive their members and supporters to log their point of view via this service and rapidly drive up support (or ant-support) for any given issue.

The 777 service could be restricted to topics du jour, it could require authentication (using an anonymous token, as used in voting) to make sure that no-one voted more than once on any issue, for instance.

So I'd like one of those please, on my mobile phone. I'd like to be able to report abandoned cars by snapping a photo within the app and having it geotagged and sent to direct.gov where it would be routed to the right council and handled quickly; I'd like to be able to report a broken streetlight in a similar way - click broken street light and have the location automatically sent. I might even want to report graffiti on a wall by snapping a photo and sending it. The more people that sent a report on the same thing, the more likely it would be to get fixed.

The folks at fixmystreet have since done a lot of the leg work on this, a brilliant job - so maybe they get a bit of seed money to do this app too?

2. The iPhone Parking app, otherwise known as iPark

I don't have a car but I talk to enough people who do who are completely confused by the latest local government idea to have you pay for your parking by ringing a number and keying in all kinds of things, but only if you've thought ahead and pre-registered. So my iPhone (or Android or blackberry) parking application would first tell me whether I could even park where I was sitting in the car and what the regulations were about before and after 6:30pm (anyone who has tried to park on the border of Westminster and Camden will know what I mean) and then allow me to pay there and then, either in an iTunes like fashion with a simple debit, via my mobile phone bill or through my credit card number being entered

3. The congestion charging app, otherwise known as iCongest (presumably on a d-phone it would be an d-congest)

Whilst I still am not driving, others do, and there ought to be a 1 touch app that pays your congestion charge right from your phone

4. The imill app (I am ill)

How about an app that told me where the nearest (open) pharmacy was, the nearest NHS dentist with spaces available, the nearest hospital, the nearest physio etc?

5. The myneighbourhood stats app

Again in 2003, I posted this

A great application, put online recently by the Office of National Statistics, lets you get details of your neighbourhood, drawn from the most recent Census. This is the first time this has ever been done. Sadly, despite it being great, I wonder whether it's a use once and forget application. People will be curious to use it once and see what's what, but then the next time they use it will be 6 years later (the average person moves house every 6-7 years). This kind of application though is what e-government is all about - you just couldn't do it without the web ... and yet too few people will likely find it and too few will reuse it. For direct marketers, statisticians and curious people though it will be a boon. I'm sure that the ONS folks are working on ever more clever uses of this data - imagine being able to trend the data from census to census, or over a 100 years and see how a neighbourhood has changed. Then think of what you could do with colour maps overlaid showing densities of different criteria. Clever stuff, nicely designed and bonus points for putting this online. Of course, because it wasn't available before the web, they won't get a tick in the box towards 100% online ... but you can't have everything.

I wonder if there is a market for a mobile version of this. Let's say you're looking at houses to buy, and you're standing outside a place that you really like. You want to know more about the neighbourhood - about schools and standards, about crime, about data from the 777 app above ... and you use this app and it gives you the key facts, like the CIA world fact book, but just for this area in , say, a radius of 1 mile from where you're standing?

One thing that struck me as I was thinking about these is that they're all essentially local apps. I don't have much need to think about tax, or benefits, or big central services when I'm out and about - I think those kind of things are best left to big screens and use at home or in the office. I'm going to have to think harder about what central government might put in a mobile app.

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.