The infamous $640 toilet seat which the Pentagon purchased back in the 1980’s now has a crappy, excuse the pun, modern day equivalent: a government-made mobile app with a price tag of $200,000.
Rich Jones of Gun.io, a job board for hackers, downloaded and installed the Heat Safety app from OSHA. It’s a straightforward service that finds your current location, measures the heat and humidity and serves up a warning with notes if the temperature is dangerous.
One might call it the kind of app that could have been created for less money by simply telling people to stick their head out the window before work. But this level of precaution is OSHA’s mandate and it’s good, in theory, to see government trying to leverage new technology.
Mr. Jones, an Android developer himself, took a much darker view. “Pardon my French, but I really cannot stress how bad this application is. Firstly, it isn’t actually capable of the function it is supposed to do. When I first tried the application, it told me that it was currently 140F in Boston. It is also extremely slow, it looks like butt, and it crashes all the time. It is completely horrible in every way. If I had to reproduce it, I’d say that it would take be about 6 hours at the maximum. At my hourly rate of $100, that’s $600.”
He decided to file a Freedom of Information Act and learned, a few weeks later, that OSHA had paid $106,000 for this Android app and $96,000 for the iPhone and Blackberry versions. The work had been done by Eastern Research Group, and environmental and energy consulting firm which itself contracted out the work to a group called Pixelbit creative, a digital design firm that apparently cannot finish their own web site. After reviewing the source code, numerous developers concurred with Mr. Jones that the project could have been completed in a day or two of work.
Sadly, government doesn’t operate like a startup. They are being billed not just for the time that went into making the app, but, as the FOIA makes clear, for the process of conceptualizing the app, figuring out the requirements, getting clearance from higher-ups, testing to ensure accessibility to all citizens, and a slew of other things that would never happen when creating a for-profit app in the private market. It’s the way government has always worked, from the $640 toilet seat, to the $200,000 mobile app, and it’s not likely to change any time soon.