The Government's $200,000 Useless Android Application

by Rich Jones on Nov 21, 2011.
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The theme music to this post is: Public Enemy - Bring the Noise.

This is a tale of massive waste in a tiny little corner of a tiny little department of the US Government, how it came to light and a few small suggestions about what could be done about it.

Getting Hot in Here

I'm not quite sure how I stumbled onto it, but I found that OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the United States Department of Labor) have an Android application. The purpose of the application is to provide information about the heat index and the corresponding safety warnings. Essentially, it is a temperature converter, it converts a temperature into a safety level. Being an Android developer myself, I wanted to give it a try to see how it handled.

It's a steamy pile of shit.


Lookin' good.

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. Now, the quality of the product didn't surprise me a huge amount - I don't ever expect very much from the federal government. Still, I was curious about how much we taxpayers payed for the program - and it knocked me off my feet.

Freedom of Information

To find out, I filed a Freedom of Information Act Request for the cost of the application, the names of the developers and the source code. To do this, I used the website MuckRock.com, an awesome, awesome, awesome service which allows anybody to file Freedom of Information Act requests online and track their progress. More people need to know about this website, it is one of the coolest open government tools around.

After a few weeks of waiting (which is exceptionally short in the FOIA world, and OSHA should be commended for that), I received a response. The application cost $106,467 for the Android version, and an additional $96,000 for the iPhone and (non-existent) BlackBerry version. That's more than $200,000 for less than $2,000 worth of non-functional temperature converters.

Here's the actual document OSHA sent to MuckRock:

Source Code

The other issue is the source code. In my opinion, since we taxpayers paid for the development of this piece of shit, we should at least be able to modify and redistrubute the code. Apparently though, the Government doesn't have to supply any information which it considers to be a "trade secret," and OSHA has determined that this crappy source code is somehow a privileged secret. This means that the company which wrote the application was allowed to object to the release of the source code, since the time limit on their objection time has since lapsed and OSHA hasn't sent the source code, I can only assume that they have filed such an objection, making this $200,000 worth of broken proprietary software which the public isn't even allowed to fix.

Eastern Research Group

The company that produced this expensive shitpile is Eastern Research Group Inc, a Massachusetts based company which is actually owned by AEA Technology, a British corporation. ERG is a "green" consultancy who claim to be able to do damn near everything a government could ever ask for, from mobile application development to industrial hygiene, from military explosive engineering to event catering.

We can only hope they do a better job of securing explosives than they do at making Android applications.

What the Goddamn Fuck

The shocking part about this isn't even that it happened, but rather that it is incredibly routine. This is just one FOIA request to one tiny department for one tiny, single use application that will perhaps be used by, at most, five hundred people.. and it cost as much as a house. You can imagine what the waste must be like in other government run sectors, like defense, aerospace, infrastructure and energy. If you've ever been curious about the cost of a government project in your sector, I'd strongly suggest that you head over to MuckRock.com and file a FOIA request yourself. Let me know what you find!

TODO

So, why are we giving so much money to a giant, foreign-owned corporation which doesn't even know what the hell it's doing? What would an alternative look like?

I can envision a system not dissimilar to the way things work here at Gun.io. Instead of awarding a lump-sum contract to a single corporation who claim they can build a system without ever even having to prove their competency, the government could have open contracts for the smallest possible components and award them to the first groups or individuals who can fulfill the requirements. This would reward talent and speed rather than nepotism and waste.

Certainly, there is also room for a startup in this space to connect the open government contracts with smaller, independent software development studios. This would reroute government funds away from foreign-owned corporations towards American small business, which is exactly where America needs to grow.

Your Say

What do you think? Was this money well spent? Is the alternative a viable alternative, or will things always be setup the way they are now? Leave your comments below!

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