Tips for Building Small Apps With Big Outcomes

Guest post from John Dawes, Project Strategy and GIS Analysis at Chesapeake Commons

John Dawes, Project Strategy and GIS Analysis at Chesapeake Commons

Last year the Chesapeake Commons and Potomac Riverkeeper (PRK) released Version 1.0 of the Water Reporter app.  This native application for iPhones helps PRK crowd-source citizen documented pollution events and activity reports throughout the Potomac Watershed.  While the technological functionality of the app is simple the data created from its use helps catalyze big restoration efforts throughout the Potomac and now in the Chesapeake Bay’s seven state drainage area.   The Chesapeake Commons Dev. Team and Potomac Riverkeeper were both really Water Reporter Appexcited and humbled when we won 501cTECH’s Technology Innovation Award in 2013 and it got us thinking hard about strategies that can ensure the success of nonprofit app ideas.  As a team dedicated to connecting people on the ground with the custom toolkits they need to make the world a healthier place, here are some general guidelines we followed to turn the Water Reporter concept into an outcome oriented piece of software.

The Need

In the case of Water Reporter, we had the ability collect pollution and activity reports through a web-based form, but there were two major elements in this workflow that inhibited participation and data quality:

  • No ability to add location to pollution reports
  • The form was only web accessible so adding images required more work than the average user was willing to put in (take image off camera, upload, and repeat)

image (3)Identifying a clear need leads to solvable problems that your technological can address.   It’s also important to have a good understanding of how the cost of development/automation stacks up against the benefits (ROI).  When we say cost we are not just talking about the price tag of developing an app, we mean the full cycle that includes PR, staff time to manage the project, and getting the entire organization to adopt the software.  It’s also important to note the software supporting your idea will require minor adjustments from programmers once fully implemented.  We advise groups to have an understanding of ongoing financial support necessary to grow the app/technology into a viable solution.

Set Milestones

Our team broke off small portions of the Water Reporter App that we knew we could get done water appin a limited time frame and with limited funding.  Version 1.0 of our app has a portion of functionality we knew we could do well with the money and time allotted.  This allowed us to test our concept without hedging too much financially.  With our first version milestones achieved, we were able to answer the following questions:

  • Will PRK’s constituency use a mobile app to collect data in the field?
  • Will PRK be able to handle incoming reports and process the data into information that expedites their workflow?
  • What additional features do we need to make this app better to use (identified by users and PRK)?

The result was demand for new features that will be released in version 2.0 launching in June.  This gets us closer to our end goal of perfecting the app for our user base while taking a financially conservative approach when scaling to meet demand.

Find a Developer Who Has Your Back

We urge you to go beyond your nonprofit’s procurement process to vet a developer.  We recommend finding a programmer who shares the same values as your organization and wholeheartedly wants to see your concept be born and survive.  This is difficult as many firms try to archetypically shove clients into solutions they have developed in the past.  Make sure you are seen more as a stakeholder and less as a client.  Try and do in person interviews and line them up early on in the process to help flesh out the idea of your technology solution.  The goal is to manage expectation and get your project’s functionality completed in cost effective chunks that benefit the user base.

Plan For the Long-Term

As mentioned in the first item (The Need), these projects almost always take longer than expected so plan accordingly.  This is due to the fact that bringing technological solutions from concept to usable product takes time and much iteration.  When you see the red number app-update-iphone1 icon above your iPhone App telling you to update the software, it’s because hours of design, tinkering, and refinement of ideas and workflows have taken place all so the user can have a better experience and interact with the system more efficiently.  Money to pay for a developer and a good project idea does not equate to instant project success so you need to be prepared to learn and adapt to how your solution will be used, broken, loved and hated.  The good news is that realizing this ahead of time will allow your team, project partners, and supporters to be on the same page throughout the entire process.

We hope this advice is helpful in allowing groups to build out their concepts more efficiently and cost effectively.  NGOs have some of the greatest app concepts that, when actualized, benefit the organizations they serve and society.

Note from 501cTECH: The 2014 Technology Innovation Awards are now open for submissions until June 30. Click here for full details about the Awards.  Good luck!

Topics: tech impact, nonprofit technology, Chesapeake Commons, iPhone App, Technology Innovation Awards, Celebration of Technology, Guest Post, Potomac Riverkeeper, Potomac Watershed, Water Reporter

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