Monday, April 15, 2013

There's (not) an app for that -- yet

The Washington State Legislature has an award-winning web site. All four corners boast web sites (you're visiting one right now), as do executive offices from the governor on down. If you want to find out something about state government -- how's that bill doing, what's this or that agency's latest initiative, where's the governor speaking next Thursday, or why are flags at half-mast outside government buildings -- you can sit at your computer and get your answer with a few keystrokes. We're a wired state government.

That only makes sense: With better than 85 percent of Washingtonians hooked up to the Internet, at home or at their business or, most often, both, we're well into the top 10 states for Internet penetration. We're a wired state.

Increasingly, however, we're also becoming un-wired. Mobile devices are changing the way people connect. Unfortunately, many of those great government web sites haven't adapted to this new reality and it shows.

This might not be such a problem were it not for two interesting pieces of data.

Last year, smartphones topped the 50-percent mark among U.S. cellphone users. For the first time, more than half the people you see carrying cellphones – and that's essentially everyone you see – are walking around with extremely sophisticated and capable hand-held computers that can also be used, in a pinch, as a telephone.

Second, and here's where the headline of this post becomes relevant, more of those smartphone owners (54.2 percent) used them to access apps than to access an Internet browser (52.1 percent) last year.

If there's an app for almost everything, what's missing? Conspicuously, most state-level legislative bodies. The Obama White House has a great app, the U.S. House has one, the Senate Republican Conference has one, and several U.S. representatives and senators have individual apps. Below that . . . crickets. As of last month, the National Conference of State Legislatures was aware of just seven legislative apps:

Alaska Legislature
Florida House
New York Senate
North Carolina General Assembly
Texas Senate Business & Commerce Committee
Utah Watch Bills
Puerto Rico Senate

Why? Various reasons, starting with cost. It takes serious skills to create a worthwhile, attractive, user-friendly interactive app, and those skills don't come cheap. Just the initial coding can run upwards of $15,000 for a relatively simple app, and the best ones, while appearing to be simple, aren't. Few legislatures have people on staff with the expertise to build an app, and in the midst of a recession, no one wants to be accused of unnecessary spending of public resources. 

Apps qualify as new territory – for us. But for the estimated 114 million Americans who use smartphones (not to mention 70 million tablets, and that stat is almost a year old), apps aren't new. They're expected, and more and more, they're preferable to traditional web sites.

Every legislature will have an iPhone and Adroid app sooner or later, and probably a Windows Phone app as well. Every caucus within those legislatures will have their app. The only question yet to be decided is, who'll get there the quickest, with the best product?