Meet Your City's Newest Resident: The Agile-Enabled Municipal App

New apps help citizens cut through bureaucracy with a tap.

As younger generations opt to live in the city over the suburbs, local governments are appealing to their "customers'" predilection for technology.

That's the case for the city of Annapolis, Md., which recently built a parking app (and accompanying website) in a matter of weeks. This app allows citizens to purchase parking permits, buy monthly parking and pay for on-street parking or any outstanding parking tickets. Locals and visitors can even use the app to check the status of a circulator bus that takes people from outlying parking garages into the city center. For years, getting a city parking permit in Annapolis (or, really, any city) meant standing in line for hours in the city's DMV. Now, citizens can request a permit from the car, from the kitchen or even the bathroom, via a municipal smartphone app.

Annapolis is among a number of cities, including San Mateo and Palo Alto in California and Boston, that have created apps for citizens to make government services not only more efficient, but also more convenient.

Outsourcing Municipalities

In order to make the municipal app a reality, Annapolis hired outside contractor SP+, a Chicago-based parking services company that used agile development—involving multiple iterations, fast-paced development and A/B testing—to build the software. Using WordPress and responsive design for mobile devices, the team at SP+ was able to create a new desktop site that also corresponded with mobile devices and the app itself. It took just eight weeks to go from mock-up to implementation, pulling together data points and systems that spanned several city departments.

This kind of outsourcing has become far more common among municipalities, says Vincent Raguseo, senior vice president of marketing at SP+. Over the past six years, the company has helped dozens of municipalities build parking apps, allowing people to pay for and find parking in a city, and built the backend logistics to make these apps work. Some cities, he adds, now look to privatize parking and transportation apps entirely, having app companies externally manage the often-cumbersome process of processing payments and issuing permits.

Small Things Go a Long Way in the City

In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) turned to mobile ticketing company Masobi to develop an app that issues mobile bus or subway tickets to about 30 percent of its user base and lets people get real-time predictions on when a bus will arrive. In fact, Persistence Market Research reports that the market for automated fare collection systems is expected to surpass $11.8 billion by 2024.

One of the chief challenges for MBTA when developing this mobile ticketing app was to ensure that anyone who bought a ticket on their phone and either lost or didn't have their phone could log in on another phone and still claim their ticket. Another feature incorporates prediction technology, similar to Uber's GPS technology, that lets people know within five minutes when a bus will arrive. Ideally, a person could log into their account and get an estimated arrival time for their bus, allowing them to perhaps sneak in time to do the dishes or hang out with their kids, says David Block-Schachter, chief technology officer at MBTA.

“It seems small, but it's a small thing that makes people's lives so much easier," Block-Schachter says. “It's that one-click ease."

Jennifer Alsever
By Jennifer Alsever | August 01, 2017