Open Municipal Data, Part 2 – Going Mobile

Over the last several years, many businesses re-invented themselves to deliver the “Amazon experience”: a mobile phone app that enables transactions any time and from anywhere. Could a government benefit by doing the same?

That question was asked and answered years ago by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS was spending a fortune answering taxpayers’ phone calls[1] and had to save money. The goal was to let taxpayers get information without taking up employees’ time, and the vehicle was a mobile app called IRS2Go.

When IRS2Go launched in 2011, a lot of people downloaded and loved the app. Oddly, some who loved the app never actually used it. They simply appreciated the IRS’ offering free technology to make their lives easier. The IRS instituted a cost-control measure and wound up with both savings and a tremendous public relations coup.

Include All Your Residents

A municipal mobile app enables something fundamentally more important than cost savings and good PR. While it’s understood that mobile apps appeal to a generation who are most comfortable with those devices, it’s less apparent that other demographic groups are also better served. Some seniors never found reasons to purchase or use personal computers. Some households are budget-limited. However, almost everyone today has and can use a smartphone.

Figure 3 Not everyone uses a computer, but almost everyone has a cell phone

An IBM research project on the use of mobile apps in government[2] pointed out that citizens who don’t own computers feel underrepresented when a government offers online interaction. Offering your residents a connection via the ever-present smartphone gives access to a broader demographic cross-section of your constituents.

While online portals can be accessed from smartphones, a better solution is a mobile app specifically designed for the smaller screen. Citizens can report hazards, file and check OPRA requests (or avoid them by getting the information without filing an OPRA request) and check statuses from anywhere, and they can do it without requiring time from a municipal employee. A well-designed app can further streamline processes by taking advantage of built-in device features like cameras and mapping technology.

               Figure 4 – SDL Citizen Mobile App

In Summary

Using technology to connect citizens and governments is often assumed to be an expensive proposition with limited payback beyond the obvious morale or public relations boost.

Some municipal leaders don’t know they already own the technology needed to offer access, or assume that deployment requires custom software and lengthy integration projects. If you’re a municipal manager or administrator, an answer to mitigating public-access concerns, resource cost management and citizen outreach might just be waiting for you to give it the OK.

[1] NextGov.com, It Costs Taxpayers $41 Per Phone Call to IRS (http://www.nextgov.com/emerging-tech/2018/02/it-costs-taxpayers-41-phone-call-irs/145870/, 2018)

[2] Sukumar Ganapati, Using Mobile Apps in Government (Washington, DC, IBM Center for The Business of Government, 2015)

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