The Data Briefing: Serving Citizen Developers Inside and Outside of the Federal Government

Citizen developers are people who do not work in information technology (IT) but have built IT applications. Back in the mid-80s, business people would smuggle in personal computers to run their spreadsheets and word processing applications (anyone remember VisiCalc and Bank Street Writer?) instead of having to rely on data processing departments. Today, citizen developers use no-code or low-code services such as IFTTT (If This Then That) or QuickBase to build their business apps.

Hands typing on a keyboard and floating application icons.

Citizen developers have arisen because of several reasons. One reason is that IT departments may take too long to develop a business app. Another reason is that IT developers do not have the requisite subject matter expertise to build the business app. Sometimes, pre-existing tools such as Microsoft Excel need only a little programming to create the needed business app. There is also a proliferation of easy-to-use programming tools and plenty of free learning resources online.

According to a 2009 Gartner report, citizen developers were projected to build 25% of new business applications by 2014. A 2014 IBM report found 80% of enterprises are turning to citizen developers as part of the solution to help close skill gaps for application development. Organizations are also using low-code tools and platforms to prototype applications that can be built later with more sophisticated and robust tools.

Citizen developers depend on APIs* and open data to build their business apps. Because there is often no or little budget for citizen-developed apps, citizen developers most likely rely on free government APIs and datasets. Federal government APIs and datasets are great resources for citizen developers because there is a wide variety of economic data, weather data, census data and scientific data that can help create powerful business apps. Federal government APIs are often well-documented and integrate well with a variety of low-code platforms.

Binary blue computer code on interface

What about citizen developers inside the federal government? I was not able to find any studies or statistics about the size or that even acknowledged the existence of citizen developers in the federal government. From personal observations, I know there are some federal employees who have low-code or no-code platforms to build business applications but this practice does not seem to be encouraged by agency IT departments. Given the increasing importance of IT occupations to the federal government, maybe formally encouraging federal employee citizen developers can be a good strategy in helping close mission-critical IT skills gaps.

As agencies continue to build APIs and release datasets, agencies should consider how citizen developers may use the federal government’s open data. Although app developers are an important audience, the increasing importance of citizen developers requires just as much consideration when agencies design APIs and associated training materials._*API – Application Programming Interface are how software programs and databases share data and functions with each other. Check out APIs in Government for more information._ (IFTTT, Quickbase, Microsoft Excel, Gartner, and IBM were used illustrative purposes and did not imply endorsement by the federal government or any specific federal agency.) Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends. Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. You can find out more about his personal work in open data, analytics, and related topics at BillBrantley.com. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.

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