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City apps run afoul of law of unintended consequences

Just as Jackson, Mich., officials were getting excited to build their first city app, a new rule from Apple aimed at reducing spam apps forced them to abandon the effort.

“We’ve kind of hit a wall, to be honest with you, but we’re doing our best to figure it out,” said Will Forgrave, the city’s public information officer.

The city had almost completed a contract with CivicPlus -- which hosts Jackson's website and recently helped Jackson County build an app -- to create an application that would let residents report potholes, pay fines and conduct other city business when Apple issued a new rule banning “apps created from a commercialized template or app generation service.” Translation: Governments that work with app developers such as CivicPlus or Accela by customizing a template to fit their needs could no longer do that. Instead, they have either build their apps from scratch themselves and assure they don’t share any code with other apps -- or go without. For smaller municipalities like Jackson, which has a population of 33,000, the rule pushes them toward the latter.

The rule applies only to apps that run on Apple devices. To use Jackson's CivicPlus app, Apple users would have to download the main CivicPlus application and then search for Jackson amid the other municipalities the company supports.  Users of Androids or other smartphones would still be able to download apps created through templates. In other words, Jackson would need two apps, which “I thought added to the confusion,” Forgrave said.

In Asheville, N.C., Eric Jackson, the city’s digital services architect, thinks the Asheville App is safe even though Apple called out the company that built it -- Accela -- for the same app in another city. Launched in 2013, Asheville’s app lets city residents report problems such as potholes and water-line breaks.

“We have not been hit by it personally,” Jackson said of the rule, but “I expect it will happen.” Accela, however, will negotiate with Apple, leaving the city out of it, just as it did for the other location, he said.

Apple issued the rule this summer as part of a refresh of its App Store Review Guidelines and targeted apps that essentially clone others. But the rule undoes much of “progress government has made over the last several years towards better apps, better service, and greater digital competence,” wrote Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, in a September blog post. Her two main concerns are that cities “will no longer own the relationship with their citizens” because services offered in an app will go through companies’ brands, and that the “change will reduce choice and competition.” Under the new policy, if a city wants to switch app vendors, it would end up “promoting a private vendor’s brand,” rather than its own.

“Solving the problem of spam apps is a laudable goal,” Pahlka wrote. “But if we have learned anything dealing with complex policy issues in government, it is that the one law always in effect is the law of unintended consequences. I don’t think Apple set out to disintermediate cities with private vendors, but that is the path we’re going down. In an era where trust in government is already low, I can’t see how that benefits anyone.”

SeeClickFix, which promotes citizen engagement with governments, said half of the 300 towns and cities it works with use dedicated apps, for which the company is the publisher.

“For the other half of our clients, we have this SeeClickFix application, which is what Apple would call a container application,” said company CEO Ben Berkowitz. “That means that based on the location of the application, the application behaves differently and it serves up different content, and different agencies have accountability and are notified when requests are made.”

Apple initially said that applications like this should be held within one container application, Berkowitz said, but now the company permits cities to publish these applications on their own. “What they’re saying you can’t do is publish an application on behalf of a city, even if you have a contract with them, and that’s policy change,” he added. “The issue is that some cities will not be able to publish under their accounts because they will not be able to agree to Apple’s developer terms of service.”

For example, counties in Maryland cannot accept California as the state of legal jurisdictions, he said, because towns and cities need their own state to be the place for legal jurisdiction where claims would be settled. It comes down to city and state laws on purchasing and contracting coming up against large enterprise law.

The policy changes haven’t affected SeeClickFix’s business, Berkowitz said, because of its use of the container app. “Cities could certainly move in that direction if they didn’t want to become an Apple publisher themselves,” he said. “I think the challenges becomes for those cities that would like to have their own dedicated application in the store, if they can’t comply with Apple, really what are they left with?”

In Jackson, officials are exploring alternatives to building an app. For instance, they may make their website more mobile friendly, Forgrave said. “It is a little difficult, though, because obviously when you have an agreement with somebody to pay them thousands of dollars for a mobile app and then you back out and ask them to do something else for free, they’re maybe not super gung-ho about [CivicPlus],” he said.

Other options exist, too. Dan Waylonis, an Apple software engineer, suggested in a response to Pahlka that municipalities offer application programming interfaces to give access to raw data. “Providing JSON endpoints could allow for multiple vendors to provide access to information on multiple platforms,” Waylonis wrote. “The city can now just concern itself with providing the data.” 

Like Pahlka, Asheville’s Jackson believes Apple had the best intentions. “I am basically completely certain that there was no intent to wreak havoc on the civic tech world,” Jackson said. “They’re dealing with a very real problem and they came up with a policy to do it, and it is turning out in implementation to apply to things where it is going to create problems.”

Asheville was already looking to do more custom work down the road, but Jackson’s main concern is that this problem doesn’t get out of hand.

“This is the key point: You need to not have the vendor get between the city and the people they’re serving,” he said. “It’s really important that the relationship be between the city and the citizens, not between Accela and the citizens.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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