Could The Asheville App Be Banned?

By Eric Jackson

An August 18th article by Jen Pahlka of Code for America alerted me to a potential threat to our ability to use innovative technologies to serve our citizens, an unintended consequence of an otherwise positive policy change by Apple. As the Digital Services Architect for the City of Asheville, I feel it important to take action to encourage Apple to review and revise its policy to ensure that no damage is actually done.

In 2013, Asheville launched The Asheville App, our first foray into the new world of mobile apps. We wanted to give citizens a better way to report issues like potholes, water line leaks or illegal dumping right at the point they discovered them.

Since we lacked expertise to build an app ourselves, we did what local governments often do: we contracted with a vendor to customize their already developed app to meet our needs. Such “white label” solutions, in this case Accela’s Citizen Relationship Management (CRM), are critical to smaller governments’ ability to utilize advances in technology to benefit their constituents.

In the case of The Asheville App, the customization is simple. Besides connecting to our work order systems so City staff can receive and handle requests coming in, City of Asheville branding is vital so that citizens know they are dealing directly with their City government, the entity responsible for fixing their issue, not some third party with whom they have no relationship.

A recent policy change by Apple appears to put our ability to use white label apps like this in jeopardy. In an effort to reduce the proliferation of spam apps, Apple banned “apps created from a commercialized template or app generation service” from their App Store. In subsequent interpretations of this rule, Apple decided to include white-labeled government apps like ours in this category and a number of apps and communities have already been impacted. As Jen outlines in her article, such a policy could have very damaging consequences for 21st century governments and the communities they serve.

For Asheville such a policy potentially threatens one of our (and many cities’) most important efforts: rebuilding trust with traditionally marginalized communities by creating mechanisms that better ensure their voices are included. Mobile technology allows us to reach more deeply into communities that suffer from lower broadband penetration and offer us alternative ways to communicate with individuals who may not initially trust us with their contact information. Rebuilding that trust requires that citizens clearly see who they are communicating with: the City of Asheville, not some vendor they don’t know anything about.

Not all the solutions we are looking at are affected by Apple’s policy, but it is important that we be able to leverage the full spectrum of technologies and solutions available.

There are positive signs that Apple is already aware of some of these problems and is shifting its policy accordingly. As soon as I learned of the issue, I reached out to Mark Albrecht, Senior Product Manager for apps at Accela, including that powering The Asheville App, to get his take. He said that an Accela CRM app for another community had indeed been denied under the new policy, but that it had been re-approved on its second appeal, after Accela explained that such apps “provide a unique service to the citizens of the communities we support” and why “customizing that experience for each community is essential.”

This leads me to suspect Apple is already taking steps to address the unintended consequences of their new policy and, even if not, I am confident that they will find a way to work with local governments to preserve this vital use of mobile technology. A simple clarification of the policy might suffice. If needed, cities and vendors certainly also stand ready to provide additional information or certifications that clearly distinguish our apps from spam, for example, demonstrating that the vendor has a contract with the City, or publishing apps under a City App Store account. Obviously we all prefer the lowest-effort solution possible, but we also all support Apple’s efforts to counter apps that erode trust in the entire ecosystem.

We are in contact with peers in other cities in order to coordinate our voices and effort, reaching out to Apple through posts like this and through other channels. Our hope is that we can address the issue and remove the uncertainty cities currently face as soon as possible, without any need to escalate to our Mayors and other leaders.

Originally published September 25, 2017