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Taxpayers federation raises alarm about government spending on unpopular apps

By Marco Vigliotti      

'Sometimes the government is just spitballing and hoping for the best,' says CTF federal director Aaron Wurdick.

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A watchdog group is urging the federal government to rethink its approach to mobile and web applications after finding that several internal digital products failed to attract large audiences despite sizeable production costs.

Aaron Wurdick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said Ottawa needs to develop comprehensive guidelines to structure the development of internal apps to ensure enterprising bureaucrats have clear instruction on when to utilize the increasingly popular format.

“We need some kind of parameters or guidelines to make sure that they’re not throwing money at something no one is using,” he told The Hill Times.

“One of the important questions they should ask for every app is do we need to do this in an app? Sometimes the government is just spitballing and hoping for the best.”

The CTF filed an access to information request to get detailed information on the amount of money spent on government developed apps, usage rates, and download figures.

While some apps were able to draw robust download numbers, others were barely noticed, despite the thousands invested in their development.

The Veterans Matter app, developed by Veterans Affairs, cost nearly $176,000 to produce, yet only attracted 1,574 downloads, working out to $112 per download, according to government figures released by the CTF.

The app allows users to find information about the services and benefits offered to veterans, Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP members, and their families.

Parks Canada’s Parka Photo Missions app, a scavenger hunt-type game, cost $40,000 but was downloaded only 1,085 times.

Meanwhile, Parks Canada’s Learn to Camp and Heritage Gourmet apps, which provide camping instructions and Canadiana-themed recipes, respectively, were developed at a collective cost of $137,241.

The Heritage Gourmet app was downloaded 17,342 times, while Learn to Camp was downloaded 106,372 times.

Separate government documents released in response to an inquiry from Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.) show that the government has spent $4.3 million on apps since the Liberals assumed office on Nov. 5, 2015.

More than half of that total – $2.8 million – went into the joint development of the MyCRA and MyBenefits apps for the Canadian Revenue Agency.

The two are web-based applications and hence are not downloaded. The usage rates for MyCRA and MyBenefits were recorded as 36,932 and 15,186, respectively, in October, the last month statistics were provided.

Conversely, Explora Waterton by Parks Canada, a guided tour app for Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta, was downloaded 705 times and averages 128 users per month. It was developed at a cost of $3,400.

Explora-branded apps are available for a number of national parks.

The Explora Kootenay app also cost $3,400 to produce but was downloaded 2,975 times and its estimated monthly usage rate is 540.

Alain Belle-Isle, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board Secretariat, which manages the public service, said the government’s Standard on Optimizing Websites and Applications for Mobile Devices sets out the requirements for mobile device applications and “only allows for the creation of these applications if they are justified.”

These justifications include user and business needs that warrant the total cost of the application, he said.

While individual departments and agencies are responsible for the mobile applications they develop, Mr. Belle-Isle said they are “encouraged to do outreach and assess user needs and preferences, using techniques such as user testing and feedback.”

“They should offer a consistent, quality user-centric experience – including on-line and through mobile devices – and they are encouraged to develop mobile applications to support their mandate and services, where it is justified,” he added.

But for Mr. Wurdick, the usefulness of these investments go beyond download numbers and dollar figures.

Some of the apps, he said, merely duplicate information already existing online, while some are structured as games, bringing into question whether there’s a need for the government to spend public dollars creating something that is already broadly available.

For example, the National Film Board produced and launched two game apps, one based on the short film Monsieur Pug and another called Cardboard Crash, a self-described virtual reality experimental that uses a Google Cardboard viewer to bring the viewer inside a self-driving car headed for an unavoidable crash.

Cardboard Crash cost just shy of $120,000 to produce and drew 11,273 downloads, while Where is Monsieur Pug cost $7,487 to develop and was downloaded 12,430 times.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is raising concerns about spending on government developed apps, including several games designed by the National Film Board (pictured). Screengrab photograph

Mr. Wurdick also questioned the logic behind the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s decision to create an app for its 2011 annual report, which is already available online.

The app was produced at a cost of $6,540 and downloaded 211 times.

“A lot of this is government trying to keep up with the times, and that’s not a bad sentiment, the problem is if you don’t properly identify [the need],” Mr. Wurdick said, adding that it’s unclear whether the figures provided include downloads conducted by government staff testing the software.

If the apps were all popular, he said, the CTF probably “wouldn’t have a problem,” but the information released by the government show, at the very least, that the results are mixed.

Robert Lily, a spokesperson for the NFB, said the apps it produces are part of the agency’s mandate.

As a public producer, the NFB “creates audiovisual works such as documentaries, animated films and interactive works that are unique in how they are fashioned, in the themes they address, and in the way they connect with audiences, and to create a long-term legacy of creative and social endeavours,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Lily confirmed that the NFB doesn’t have a policy directing the development of apps, though argued that the apps it produces are “appreciated” by Canadians because they “allow them to watch films, create animated shorts, and have access to their stories and audio-visual legacy.”

He also said that the success of the apps are measured through available statistics.

Meanwhile, the CMHC is in the process of developing a policy framework for the production of online content, including mobile apps, which will feature a measure gauging the effectiveness of the content, according to agency spokesperson Jonathan Rotondo.

The annual report app, which was not followed past 2012, represented an effort to “find new and innovative ways” of communicating the information contained in the expansive document, he said, adding that it’s important to note that some content on the agency’s website is not easily accessed by mobile devices and the app was a way to improve the user experience and “bridge the gap.”

Despite his criticism, Mr. Wurdick said he’s not questioning the “good intentions” spurring the development of the apps. In fact, he even cited in a statement the post-traumatic stress disorder coaching app developed by Veterans Affairs as laudable.

But he wants to ensure the apps are useful endeavours and are an efficient way to use public dollars, with usage of the technology only expected to grow in the coming years.

“We sort of see this as the beginning of the app era, not the end. Governments are likely to do more of this, not less,” he explained.

“If their track record is for every [decent app], there are 10 stinkers, multiply that by 100 times what we have now. That adds up.”

Mr. Wurdick said apps must only be developed by the government when they are the best format available to address a pressing need, citing as an example making communicating with those in the public service easier as a potential app that could be useful.

mvigliotti@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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