A Silicon Valley CIO’s conundrum: With mobile apps, do you build or buy?

Santa Clara County CIO Ann Dunkin wants to build a more mobile-friendly environment for local residents, offering a one-stop shopping experience on municipal websites that are mobile platform agnostic. The question: Do you build or buy those apps?

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Ann Dunkin took over as the CIO of Santa Clara County's municipal government five months ago, and ever since she has been absorbed by reorganizing and restructuring the county's IT functions.

The county government, which serves more than 1.7 million residents, is working to revamp the online and mobile experience, whether it's for requesting a wedding license, paying property taxes, viewing restaurant inspection ratings or making reservations at the two municipal airports.

ann dunkin, Santa Clara County CIO Santa Clara County

Santa Clara County CIO Ann Dunkin.

One of Dunkin's goals is to deploy mobile apps that offer a one-stop shopping experience and are platform agnostic, meaning it won't matter whether a resident uses an iOS, Android or Windows mobile device or a desktop PC to access online services. The county includes the cities of San Jose, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale.

Santa Clara County faces a problem that is growing more prevalent in the U.S. There's a huge backlog of enterprise app development work that needs to be done – and a growing demand for apps. That crunch is forcing IT departments to find new ways to decentralize and accelerate app development and delivery, according to Garter.

In a new report, "Predicts 2017: Mobile Apps and Their Development," Gartner found mobile app needs are driving changes to back-end enterprise systems that require increased collaboration between mobile and traditional development and operations teams.

Mobile apps explosion

The report predicted that:

  • By 2020, more than 50% of consumer mobile interactions will be in contextualized, "hyperpersonal" experiences based on past behavior and current, real-time behavior.
  • By 2021, more than half of all enterprises will expand their use of mobile development tools from mobile apps to a wider range of software; 50% of apps will trigger events for users; and 80% of enterprises that deliver mobile apps using mixed sourcing models will see benefits from having a dedicated DevOps team.
  • And by 2022, 70% of software interactions in enterprises will occur on mobile devices.

Over the past three to five years, Santa Clara County has deployed dozens of mobile apps, according to Dunkin, and as the quality of mobile applications improves, many more are expected.

Ninety-five percent of the people who use Santa Clara County's services are first timers or infrequent visitors. The other 5% return often to use its hospital and healthcare system, and other services such as housing for homeless, the child welfare office, as well as the offices of the county sheriff, the district attorney and the public defender.

For example, former prisoners can use the county's site to see scheduled appointments with the court and parole officers. "We don't want them to miss those," said Dunkin, who previously was the CIO for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

At the same time, she is working to improve the online and mobile experience, Dunkin also hopes to use data analytics from across the various country departments to better understand residents' needs.

For example, if a person repeatedly shows up at the county hospital after a visit from the sheriff's office, there's a good chance domestic abuse may be the cause, and the county can proactively contact the person about alternative housing services or to offer assistance.

Smart, hyperpersonal apps, Gartner noted, will use a combination of technologies that increase app intelligence based on historical understanding of the consumer; real-time behavior; and external factors such as location and weather. A hyperpersonal user experience will be enabled by advances in pervasive analytics, machine learning, cognitive services, bots and context brokering.

There's also a pragmatic side to serving residents. Being proactive could save the county time and money.

For example, offering abuse victims a way out of their circumstances would cut down on responses from the sheriff's office as well as emergency healthcare.

"We see a lot of the same people in...those systems. We're trying to understand those people so that we can get them out of those systems," Dunkin said. "Unlike the parks – we'd like more people to use those – we don't want more people using our criminal justice system or more people to use social services. We want less of that. We'd like to make their lives better.

"On one hand, we'd like to spend money on services that enrich people's lives. Because we're in Silicon Valley, we have a lot of resources here," Dunkin continued. "On the other hand, we have a lot of people who don't have many resources."

To build apps or to buy?

When Dunkin worked for the federal government at the EPA, she found the agency "notorious" for requiring custom applications that were always outsourced to third parties.

To be sure, there were some apps that needed to be built.

For example, when the EPA needed to create a system to track hazardous waste, none of the available shelfware did exactly what was needed, Dunkin said. "But, even in that case we were able to build pieces on top of what other people had done rather than building the whole system."

Times have changed, however, and there are more vendors who sell applications that meet government needs.

"We built our own applications, for example, for property tax payments," Dunkin said. "There are now vendors in that space that can handle payments from multiple systems. So, we're looking at what time does it make sense to switch, and will that vendor give us that seamless experience where I can apply for a permit, and I can pay for it and pay my property taxes. We want to move to a one-stop shop."

Santa Clara County's IT shop has been placed on a strict build-only-when-you-must diet. A lot of what the various offices do online, Dunkin said, is already available. So, she tells her staff to first look at what they already have; if that doesn't serve the purpose, then look to SaaS providers. And if that falls short, see if an existing app can be configured or extended to meet the need.

If not, then and only then should her staff look to custom app development.

The big question she tells her staff to ask themselves is: how close does pre-fab software match a need.

"That's always the question you have to wrestle with. Is it going to make more sense to take what I can buy and make adjustments around the edges without modifying the core product..., or should I build something," Dunkin said.

Her aversion to custom builds isn't just because she found the U.S. government's outsourcing preferences distasteful. As she explained: "Every application you develop in house you have to support and maintain.

"And, that's expensive. It's much less expensive in the long run for me to pay someone an annual license fee or 20% maintenance than for me to constantly increase my resource of staff," Dunkin said. "Because as soon as I build an app, someone's got to maintain it and that's a percentage of someone's time. So, every app I build builds up my technical debt.... I have to maintain and manage and move off to the next platform when it becomes obsolete – and I have to worry about security defects and trusting and everything that goes end to end with that product."

If Santa Clara County buys an app, it can get that app faster and cheaper, Dunkin argued. All she has to worry about is whether her budget will allow her to pay the next year's licensing fee as opposed to keeping it functioning and upgrading it.

"It's not entirely worry free..., but the amount of resources I have to apply to a piece of off-the-shelf software is far less than maintaining something I built myself," she said.

Another consideration is security. Defects that could open doors to malware or unintentionally leak sensitive information about residents are more likely with custom-built apps, she said.

"The biggest challenge around mobile security is educating users. It's very easy for users to get spoofed – to open things they shouldn't, to send messages they shouldn't, to click on links they shouldn't," Dunkin said. "Some of the tools we have to help us understand what's going on on our laptops and desktops aren't mobilized."

From a design standpoint, mobile app development is also different from desktop development, and it's a skill that many in IT are still learning, Dunkin said.

Android and iOS represent the lion's share of the mobile operating system market, and while there's inherent risk with the use of any mobile device in the enterprise, Android presents a much bigger target for malware attacks and, in turn, corporate security issues.

With the massive growth of Android-powered devices in businesses over the past couple of years, companies need a strategy to minimize any risk the platform might  pose, according to research firm J. Gold Associates. Conversely, Apple's iOS is much more restrictive about what developers can do and Apple doesn't release its source code.

Apart from platform differences, Dunkin also had concerns that Google had fewer restrictions on what apps it allows in its Google Play store. From personal experience in developing applications, she said she found Apple to be far more stringent, not only in vetting the apps, but in vetting developers as well.

"Ecosystems like Apple are relatively safe and ecosystems like Android are sort of the Wild Wild West," she said. "So, having our developers learn how to create applications that are secure and don't lose or expose data is important."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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