Should Columbia County Spend $27,980 on a Public Health Department App?

Balancing Strategic Priorities with Funding Opportunities

July 30, 2019

The Columbia County Board of Supervisors is considering approving funds for a Public Health Department mobile app. The app would provide content similar to websites of the Department of Health and the Columbia Greene Addiction Coalition. Creating the app would cost $12,995 and maintaining the app would cost $4,995 per year. Over three years, the app would cost $27,980.

Production costs would be covered by a New York State grant. Maintenance costs might be covered by additional grant funds.

This price does not include internal staff time to oversee the project or generate and maintain content. It also does not include any marketing efforts to raise awareness about the app.

Concern: How do you get people to download and become regular users?

The app offers the same features as county websites, so I’m not sure if significant numbers of users would have the incentive to download and use the app. Even if we converted all of the current website users into app users, we might still be looking at only hundreds of users—which could be a high cost per user.

As someone with professional experience in media production and web development, I think it would be better if the project had a more explicit strategy of how the app would offer unique features or benefits to the public. I’m not sure if merely duplicating website content is enough of a reason to move forward on the project. It would be much stronger if the mobile app was introducing new features and functionality the website doesn’t have or if it would perform the website functions in a better way. Even better, I’d like the solution to be informed by data and past successes.

Concern: App Quality

Draft Design for App

The proposal is to have the app developed by ThePublicHealthApp.com. The Alabama-based company has developed mobile apps for many counties in New York State. Most of New York State counties that use the company are for law enforcement and emergency management department apps. The one public health department I could identify that uses the company is Otsego County Public Health. I downloaded the app and find it to be clunky—the content feels cramped, there isn’t a clear sense of information hierarchy, and there is an overuse of unrefined animation (things are flying around and popping in without a sense of place or consistency). The Columbia County Public Health website provides a better mobile experience than the Otsego County Public Health mobile app.

Concern: Does developing and maintaining an app displace other priorities?

Given the unclear gains from the app, are there better things to focus on? Even though the app development would be outsourced, internal staff would still be involved with creating and maintaining the app. The app would introduce new content management challenges as staff would be creating and maintaining content for the app, in addition to the two websites.

The Public Health Department can only highlight a limited number of opportunities to the public, so to the extent that the department is highlighting app downloads to the public, another cause would be getting sidelined.

Would the App Provide Public Benefit?

I think we would have a bigger impact by spending an equivalent amount of money on other forms of outreach, for example, social media, content development, or direct outreach. However, the app development is covered by a grant and, if used strategically, is an opportunity to expand our Public Health Department communications. The department performs an invaluable function and service. So we need to consider if the gains from the grant-funded project will outweigh any harms.

What do you think about developing a Public Health App? Let me know if you support the resolution.

Want to know more? Check out the draft minutes from the Health and Human Services Meeting The official resolution will likely be posted on August 9. The vote is scheduled for August 14.