Custom apps: What to know when you roll your own

06 March 2014 | John Weigelt, National Technology Officer, Microsoft Canada
Seems like there’s an app for every consumer need. But government needs are a different story. Government services delivery can be complex, which means the software development projects that support them can also be a challenge. Luckily, a lot of businesses and government agencies have already been down the custom app development path, so although there may be some unexpected turns in your development process, the path is well marked and you don’t have to travel alone. Here are four best practices that should guide any custom software development initiative for government agencies.
 
Reduce, reuse, recycle
 
Every city, district, and region is distinct. But are they really unique? While every city government provides some custom services, the fact remains that many public-sector processes and responsibilities align closely with things that are already being done in the private sector or by other government agencies. Take advantage of this. Repurpose existing software tools and configure them to meet your service requirements. This is one of the best and fastest ways to develop custom apps in a cost effective, sustainable manner. The Microsoft CityNext program is actually built on the premise of reusing existing components to help governments innovate. You can also find software projects on Open Source Hosting locations like Microsoft’s CodePlex. Of course, once you’ve augmented, enhanced, and improved the tools you’ve found, share them back with the community so others can build upon your innovation.
 
Build for security
 
Cybercriminals love to target government apps because of the personal, financial, legal, and strategic information they often contain. To truly safeguard this data, it’s no longer feasible to bolt-on key features such as security, privacy, accessibility, and reliability. Your software development effort needs to address these requirements—especially security—on day one and at every stage of the development lifecycle. Get process guidance for your app development team, and make sure the process meets or exceeds the international standards organization guidance (ISO 27034-1) for incorporating security into custom applications. Take this step early and you’ll stay ahead of the threats that are sure to target your information systems.
 
Play short ball
 
Even small government agencies tend to plan years or even decades ahead, which is great for some projects, but app development isn’t one of them. The pace of technology being what it is, large multi-year software projects may be obsolete before they get delivered. It pays to plan custom software releases that look no more than 18 months out. Pick functions that address immediate needs as defined in your user scenarios, and develop them in “sprints.” This allows you to rapidly deliver new capabilities to constituents, keep pace with technology, and ultimately deliver solutions in an effective and efficient manner. And take a page from the private sector, and plan for change. Embrace an iterative development process that allows new features and functionality to be deployed in subsequent sprints, so the apps you develop today are built to evolve, keeping them relevant and useful.
 
Tap into your community
 
Open Government and the Open Data initiatives that support it are built on the premise that the broader community can help governments deliver services by building useful applications that harness government data. The creativity of the community is the great multiplier for government agencies, as evidenced by the apps developed in the City of Ottawa’s Apps4ottawa hackathon, which delivered apps from upcoming events to Childcare locations.
 
By adopting these best practices, your government agency can quickly deliver new solutions that are responsive to the needs of citizens and employees. You’ll not only manage the risks associated with software projects but also address compliance considerations throughout the service lifecycle. For any government agency, that’s the right road to be on.
 
Have a comment or opinion on this post? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Or e-mail us at ongovernment@microsoft.com.
John Weigelt
National Technology Officer, Microsoft Canada

About the Author

John Weigelt | National Technology Officer, Microsoft Canada

John drives Microsoft Canada’s strategic policy and technology efforts. He is the lead advocate for the use of technology by private and public sectors, economic development, innovation, environmental sustainability, accessibility, privacy, and security.