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Apps for the (American, Not British) People

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, July 8 2010

Sunlight Foundation designer Ali Felski grades the revamped USA.gov, your portal unto the United States government, in light of the suggestions her org had previously made for the site. She raises a point that I'm kicking myself for not mentioning:

[T]he main content of the page is dedicated just to mobile apps, that range from a BMI Calculator to the FBI's Most Wanted. I downloaded a couple to my iphone, and both that I played with were fairly nice. But I question how important these apps are to everyday citizens. When Sunlight was doing their Redesigning the Government series a lot of what I heard from folks in the government was that they couldn't do a lot with design because their work had to appeal to everyone. Certainly not everyone has a smartphone these days...

Mobile is big, huge. But do we know enough, suggests Felski, to know that apps are how people in the U.S. want to engage with the federal government? Enough to build out our UI around them? The rest of Felski's review is here, and it leads us to an almost remarkable similar, if more advanced, debate over apps taking place in the UK at this very moment.

The National Health Service (UK) Drinks Tracker app ran he British government some £10,000 in development costs, according to a BBC report. The UK government has since put a freeze on iPhone app development,

The BBC investigated, submitted Freedom of Information requests, and found that the British government has thus far dropped some £10,000 - £40,000 per app, building iPhone apps. The Beeb homed in on National Health Service Drinks Tracker and Quit Smoking apps that ran £10,000, and a Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency "masterclass" app that ran £40,000. Coming in for particular attention was £32,775 spent on an app for job seekers, which, naturally, gave rise to the critique that people searching for government job information might not overlap all that well with smartphone owners. That particular nuance feeds into the idea that the recently ousted Labour government was blowing taxpayer pounds on frivolous schemes rather than focusing on creating good jobs.

Shortly after, the new Tory/LibDem government let it be known that iPhone app development has been put on hold. 'The Government recently announced a freeze on all marketing and advertising spend for this year and this includes iPhone applications," said a Cabinet Office spokesperson. "While the Government wants to ensure that information and services are available in the most efficient and convenient forms, future spend on iPhone development will be subject to strict controls -- only essential activity...will be allowed." The use of the phrase "marketing and advertising" gives a sense, it seems, of how the British government is thinking about the relationship between apps and the governments core mission. Seems like the UK is some distance ahead of the U.S. in the debate over investments in entrepreneurial technologies, but there's a pretty good chance that debate is coming.

*Note: Our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.