It may look like an app, but there's more


The Census Bureau isn't in "the app-building business," asserted Stephen Buckner, director of the center for new media and promotions at the Census Bureau, in this week's Q&A. The statement comes as a surprise given the agency just released its first ever mobile application and announced plans for two more in the fall.

It turns out the new release is only partially about the actual Android app--it's really a front for Census to publicize its vast stores of data.

The apps will meet a short-term objective--a requirement of the Digital Government Strategy for one--but the long-term goal is that these three initial apps will inspire an independent, self-sustaining developer community to continue churning out more apps that use Census data.

Buckner said this strategy isn't unique to his agency.

"This worked for Apple, with their iPhones," he said. "They launched a product with a few apps on it in a closed environment and then opened it up and said, 'Ok developers, what kind of apps would you develop?'"

When he was chief technology officer of the Health and Human Services Department, Federal CTO Todd Park used a similar strategy, launching a plethora of challenges, codeathons, meet-ups, conferences and "health datapaloozas." They truthfully had little to do with the mashups created during those 5-hour events.

"It's really not about what the challenges and codeathons physically build," he said at the time. "Five percent of the work is publishing the data, 95 percent of the work is publicizing to the world of innovators that this data is out there for them."

While it may appear agencies are meeting one objective by publishing mobile apps, they're already searching for an off-ramp. It will be interesting to watch what other tactics agencies such as the Census Bureau employ to meet their long-term goal to get out of app development. - Molly