Australian enterprise app developer Gridstone has been working on a field trial of a mobile app NSW Police can use to issue traffic infringement notices via an iPad. Its experience provides a reminder that the big challenges in building mobile apps aren't generally to do with the mobile platform — and that you can use external cloud services even with highly sensitive data.
The Mobile Notices app is being trialled throughout September in Sydney and regional areas, using iPad Minis. Twenty devices are being used during the trial, which automatically syncs via 4G with the main NSW Police Computerised Operational Policing System (COPS) mainframe. If the trial is successful, the app may be more broadly rolled out in 2014.
Building the proof-of-concept app took nearly six months, but many of the development complications weren't to do with the mobile platform, but with data integration and legislative issues. Gridstone director Lembit Pikkat chatted to Lifehacker about the lessons learned during the development process.
Good ideas come from end users The idea for using an app to check vehicle registration information and issue infringement notices came from frontline officers. "Generally, ideas are not coming from tech guys," Pikkat said. "It comes from business or in the field It can come from anywhere in the organisation."
Integration is the biggest challenge Much of the development effort came from integrating multiple data sources, while ensuring that COPS remained a "single source of truth". Data also has to be sent from COPs to the NSW State Debt Recovery Office for processing.
"Some of those systems have been built so long ago that making sure that the data we're inputting is not going to get rejected because of field lengths and restrictions can be tricky," Pikkat noted. "Some of the rules were set up 20 years ago.
"Everyone's out there claiming they can build apps, but in reality it's the data and the integration and the security that everyone overlooks," Pikkat said. "That's what makes it work, and there's not many people addressing that enterprise integration component. You're still fielding an enterprise app and the same old rules apply."
The interface matters While the major programming effort happens in integrating those sources, designing the app itself was also important. "User interface and user experience is key nowadays. People simply don't put up with a clunky interface. No-one wants terminal emulation software inside an app "
Security needs careful attention "Security is one of the big things because everything we've had to basically set up a system where data is encrypted on the fly and at rest," Pikkat said. "There's an extensive use of tokens throughout the whole system The architecture is a system where it's highly secure but that's replicable across any government or corporate environment."
You can use the cloud for staging While all the data ends up in COPS, much of the interim processing is handled through the Sydney instance of Amazon Web Services (AWS). Data is only stored during the transaction and then deleted afterwards, from both the cloud instance and the iPad itself. "All the heavy lifting is done in the cloud," Pikkat said.
Legislative change takes time In order for the app to even be tested, legislation in NSW had to be altered to allow the issue of infringement notices in electronic rather than paper form. That process took as long as the actual initial development cycle, Pikkat said.