Digital transformation via low-code options

Digital transformation via low-code options

When it comes to service delivery, speed is not always the government’s forte. Yet the Agriculture Department saw a 75 percent drop in the time it took to insure a farmer’s crop after revamping the USDA application that farmers used to apply for insurance using a low-code platform.

“It used to be that insuring a crop would take several months,” said Matt Calkins, CEO of Appian, which provided the platform that the department used to achieve the reduction. USDA officials knew that the insurance process was too long, he said. “Delay means a failure in the intended service that was provided. Government will be better if it’s faster.”

Low code platforms minimize the amount of coding a non-expert must do to build an application. They automate routine and basic business applications and processes so that agencies don’t have to develop software from scratch them themselves.

USDA’s success with low code is one example of a trend toward digital transformation that Calkins sees in both the public and private sectors.  This “digital transformation” is driven by the need for software, which is outpacing developers’ ability to provide it. That means all organizations -- companies and government agencies alike -- must be able to build their own applications. Often employees who aren’t professional developers will be called on to create applications as citizen developers. That’s where low-code platforms come in.

In a recent YouGov survey that Appian commissioned, 82 percent of IT decision-makers said they believe companies must ensure secure and scalable citizen development, and 71 percent said they wish their company had an effective technology platform to manage citizen developers.

“We can’t make all that many more developers. We’ve got a certain number of schools, and the developers get made at about the same rate they always used to,” Calkins said. “One of two things has to happen to bridge the difference. Either we’re going to have to make the developers we’ve got much more efficient, or we’re going to have to get some people who are not developers … to make software. And that latter group is called citizen developers.”

Several risks arise from this approach, however. Top among them is that citizen developers might build an application that will crash, use too many resources, integrate incorrectly with other applications, mislabel data or yield erroneous results. Seventy-three percent of the 500 survey respondents cited data integrity as their top concern.

The second biggest concern, at 69 percent of respondents, is security. Citizen developers often build apps with sensitive data on unsecured platforms, or they might access other applications, creating new routes by which the organization could be infiltrated.

Despite these risks, citizen development and digital transformation march forward, Calkins said, adding that the challenges are not insurmountable.

“Typically when you write an application, you have to start with some code,” he said. “You’d have to be knowledgeable enough to start writing, and everything is a very long process and it depends on everything being right.” Citizen developers, however, need an easier approach.

Appian’s platform simplifies the development process. Calkins likens it to construction with Lego bricks.

“We give them the pieces, and they just put the pieces together,” he said. IT officials define what goes into the pieces. As a result, “we know that data won’t get misinterpreted, for example, and the results will be the same application to application because they’re using the same Lego brick.”

Additionally, if any component changes in the future, such as a piece getting upgraded, then that new version is going to automatically be part of all the applications, Calkins said. Appian also protects the system as a whole by putting the pieces in a sandbox. If an application doesn’t work as expected and gets deleted, the slate is wiped clean.

Right now, citizen developers’ apps are often on the periphery of an organization, Calkins said, while “the most heavily used applications, by contrast, are almost always developed by professional developers.”

Still, he sees digital transformation as a major growth area, and the government is ripe for citizen development. “It’s already big and it will just keep getting bigger,” Calkins said. “I think digital transformation is going to change the way government works.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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