The App Trap…and how to avoid it

Most of us remember the first Snake game Nokia had put on their phone in the nineties. We have come a long way. Nowadays there’s an app for everything and our Smartphones are bustling with new tech solutions. We have also seen a profusion of App Challenges meant to stimulate innovation, including our own, co-organised with the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) and the Malta Information Technology Agency (MITA) earlier this year.

Another example that recently caught our eye at the 10th GEO European Project Workshop in Berlin is JRC’s MYGEOSS platform, funded as a 2-year Horizon2020 project (2015-2016). The platform aims to host smart Internet applications based on GEOSS —the Global Earth Observation System of Systems. Some are developed by the EC, but most were developed through two calls for applications, with a third call underway.

The applications that have emerged are numerous, in both cases. From mobile apps crowdsourcing data for disaster management, to apps that send flu alerts, to traffic congestion management, there is no shortage of ideas.

What do Eurisy’s, JRC’s, and other challenges have in common? They put geo-information and satellite data at the fingertips of developers. Where do they differ? In how they plan for the future.

The often-quoted rule of thumb is that 9 out of 10 start-ups fail and innovation alone cannot determine their success. So what else does, and how can more challenges help innovators plan for commercial success?

Know the clients

In Berlin, no less than nine MYGEOSS apps were presented, each one more interesting than the next. For example Protar is an app that allows one to visualise changes in Europe’s natural protected areas (Natura 2000). Water Direct allows users to search for watercourses and add Instagram photos. A feature currently lacking in Google Maps. Both apps could prove valuable for a certain niche of users, such as small NGOs unable to process their own datasets, or environment agencies. But these users remain theoretical, for now. Many app developers admitted that

“they know that the app might be of use to someone, but they do not know for whom”.

With this in mind, when launching the Malta App Challenge we ensured that the final user were on board from the start. This had been the case for previous MITA app challenges, but not for challenges launched in the context of satellite data, as far as we know. Thus, the Malta App Challenge included a user needs scoping session where the identified users from public authorities gave feedback to developers on how they work, and on the challenges they encounter. These one-on-one sessions ensured that the Apps would respond to existing needs and a first client would exist even before the product was launched.

Also present at the GEPW16, Vizzuality, a private SME, which turns data into stories for the World Resource Institute or Spain’s energy provider RED, confirmed the importance of developing a user focused business model. To obtain the best products, they survey users regularly and work side by side with their clients.

In a research focused environment, as in the case of JRC, it is to be expected that it is not within the institution’s mandate to come up with profitable business plans. But encouraging innovators to involve the end-users is probably possible and certainly beneficial.
In Europe, the EC could help start-ups and SMEs go beyond their networks. Berlin participants recommended more match-making events, alongside more reliable data sets.

Design thinking and mentorship

As we have said before, satellite data is only a piece of an information product. If it is to be highly relevant, satellite data must be put in the context of the end-user. The context is given by anything from cadaster maps to area-specific social and economic indicators, to crowdsourced information. Not only that, but an information product must also be 1. usable, and 2. pleasant to use.

MYGEOSS offers a mix of various data sources, as did the Malta App Challenge. The problem with leaving it at that though is that it restricts the number of developers that can participate in the challenge. Indeed, many IT-skilled individuals —most, as a matter of fact—cannot process raw satellite data. In order to open up the challenge to a larger number, but also to build capacity, the Malta App Challenge included multi-disciplinary mentorship both on processing techniques, and on product design.
A “learning by doing” attitude can prove successful sometimes, but in reality inexperienced entrepreneurs would gain much more from a sustained, cross-disciplinary mentoring programme. Such a programme would provide them with hands-on tools to approach the market they’re targeting.

Who should offer it? Well in Malta ESA supported the satellite data processing training, while marketing experts mobilised by MITA did the rest. Across Europe, all those organisations that wish to promote the take-up of satellite data should have that in mind.

The after-development

The app was built and tested. What next? During the programme, start-ups can expect to receive financial support to create their product. However,

once the project ends, many struggle to keep the flow of funds coming and move the idea forward.

In the case of universities and other research organisations, the product may be abandoned all together and often is.  So what to do about it? Of course, no-one can work magic to make a product successful on the market. But we found the Malta App Challenge recipe, as implemented by MITA, effective in that they asking the developers to register a company as a pre-condition for funding.

The formula may have downsides, in that it restricts participation from those who do not wish to establish a company, including existing companies. When the objective is to do capacity building in EO processing, it’s perhaps not always the best. So in the Malta App Challenge, we did both: those participating in the Start-up 2.0 challenge had to register, while those participating in the MEPA challenge did not. It’s called putting one’s eggs in two baskets.

The public authority as a first customer

The Malta Environment Agency was on board the challenge from the beginning, and hoping to make use of the outcomes of the challenges, by participating in their development. Everyone knows the theory of the government as the first client, few succeed. Even in the US, the federal government’s Small Business Administration (SBA) set itself the goal of awarding 23% of all federal prime contracts, and 38% all federal subcontracts, to companies with fewer than 1,500 employees.

They failed miserably in getting anywhere near that goal”, notes Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, DC, according to one source.

Getting there…

Creating an app is not enough, funding it may not be enough, and training developers may not be enough. No-one has a waterproof recipe for success. It will take that magic touch where all stars align to make a particular product successful. But we should act on what we can, notably, by equipping (some) entrepreneurs with the right tools.