Building/Buying An (Safety) App Is Not a Strategy

June 12, 2014

Todd Piett

We see a lot of requests for proposals for various safety applications, and many have this question: “Does your solution have an app?”.  Umm… well, yes.  Lots.  In fact, one of our apps (Rave Guardian) is probably more widely deployed than all other campus safety apps put together (ok, end of the self promotional horn tooting).  Does that give me a higher score on the RFP?  Then yesterday I saw an announcement from the new head of a government agency outlining their strategy as “building more apps”.  What is wrong with both of these scenarios?  An app is not a strategy.

appsLet’s first define an app.  While app is short for application and can apply to any type of software which performs a function, most folks now mean software designed to run on a mobile phone, more specifically smartphones.  Apps are typically downloaded onto a phone via an app store, the two biggest obviously being Apple’s iTunes or Google’s Play Store.  They can be self contained, meaning all the functions and user experience run natively on the device or they can leverage a mobile data connection to interact with other services on the web.

So, back to the original statement… why is an app not a strategy?  An app is simply a mobile interface for performing some function.  Ideally that function is solving a problem for the user.  You are applying technology to a challenge, hence the name “application”.  Google maps is a good example.  The problem being solved is making it easier to find something.  You access it from your desktop computer via a web site (a web “app”), via a mobile friendly web site (maybe the same site accessed from your web site that is responsive to the device viewing it), or via an app on your smartphone.  The app is merely taking advantage of some unique capabilities afforded through the mobile operating system (e.g. access to your GPS location) to make the “problem solving experience” smoother.

When an RFP asks “does your solution have an app” it is not clear what problem they are trying to solve.  Is there a problem with cell coverage that requires a function to run natively and operate without a data connection?  Are they trying to make the experience of sending a notification easier from a mobile phone?  Are they trying to enable students or citizens to more easily interact and share information with responders?  A mobile app is a means of solving a problem, and often a very powerful one, but the key is to understand the problem.  A strategy addresses a “customer” need.  That customer might be a lost traveler trying to find the nearest gas station or a deaf caller trying to report a car accident.

There are a number of reasons this is important for public safety to get their hands around.  First, don’t spend money on apps unless you understand what you are trying to accomplish.  Just getting an app is not a strategy.  Second, remember that an app is just one way to perform a function.  I’ve been working in a standards group looking at how apps interact with public safety.  Looking at apps in a vacuum is short sighted.  If history has taught us anything, we know that technology will evolve faster than we anticipate and in ways we can’t guess.

An app on my iPhone might be all the rage today, but in 5 years people might wonder at how clunky it was to click buttons with your finger while they speak into a voice enabled cloud.  Driven off a wristband that uses 2-factor authentication based on their voice, DNA, or finger prints the user may simply say “get me to the nearest 4-star rated steak house” and have the route visually projected in front of them.  If they say “that looks good” the route is projected via Bluetooth to their driverless car and they are instantly taken to the restaurant.  There may be no concept of an app, just seamless access to on-demand services without any downloads or click through interfaces.

So how strategic is it really to say your strategy is to build (or buy) an app?  Be wary of those trying to sell you a service on the grounds of the service being delivered as a phone app.  Instead, make sure you are buying something because it solves a problem you have.

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