The Long Way From Government Open Data to Mobile Health Apps: Overcoming Institutional Barriers in the US Federal Government

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 7.44.06 PMThe Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) just published my article “The Long Way From Government Open Data to Mobile Health Apps: Overcoming Institutional Barriers in the US Federal Government“. I analyzed mobile apps and their functions, as well as their development process. In addition, I interviewed public managers in the U.S. federal government to understand how they overcame institutional barriers to reuse open data and build mobile apps:


Background: Government agencies in the United States are creating mobile health (mHealth) apps as part of recent policy changes initiated by the White House’s Digital Government Strategy.

Objective: The objective of the study was to understand the institutional and managerial barriers for the implementation of mHealth, as well as the resulting adoption pathways of mHealth.

Methods: This article is based on insights derived from qualitative interview data with 35 public managers in charge of promoting the reuse of open data through, the platform created to run prizes, challenges, and the vetting and implementation of the winning and vendor-created apps.

Results: The process of designing apps follows three different pathways: (1) entrepreneurs start to see opportunities for mobile apps, and develop either in-house or contract out to already vetted Web design vendors; (2) a top-down policy mandates agencies to adopt at least two customer-facing mobile apps; and (3) the federal government uses a policy instrument called “Prizes and Challenges”, encouraging civic hackers to design health-related mobile apps using open government data from, in combination with citizen needs. All pathways of the development process incur a set of major obstacles that have to be actively managed before agencies can promote mobile apps on their websites and app stores.

Conclusions: Beyond the cultural paradigm shift to design interactive apps and to open health-related data to the public, the managerial challenges include accessibility, interoperability, security, privacy, and legal concerns using interactive apps tracking citizen.


Mergel I.: The Long Way From Government Open Data to Mobile Health Apps: Overcoming Institutional Barriers in the US Federal Government, JMIR mHealth uHealth 2014;2(4):e58, URL:, DOI: 10.2196/mhealth.3694


mobile apps;
open data;
prizes and challenges

Opening Government: Designing Open Innovation Processes to Collaborate With External Problem Solvers

The Social Science Computer Review has just released (in online first format) a Special Issue on Open Government edited by Mila Gasco. I contributed a paper titled “Opening Government: Designing Open Innovation Processes to Collaborate With External Problem Solvers.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 6.12.09 AMAbstract:

Open government initiatives in the U.S. government focus on three main aspects: transparency, participation, and collaboration. Especially the collaboration mandate is relatively unexplored in the literature. In practice, government organizations recognize the need to include external problem solvers into their internal innovation creation processes. This is partly derived from a sense of urgency to improve the efficiency and quality of government service delivery. Another formal driver is the America Competes Act that instructs agencies to search for opportunities to meaningfully promote excellence in technology, education, and science. Government agencies are responding to these requirements by using open innovation (OI) approaches to invite citizens to crowdsource and peer produce solutions to public management problems. These distributed innovation processes occur at all levels of the U.S. government and it is important to understand what design elements are used to create innovative public management ideas. This article systematically reviews existing government crowdsourcing and peer production initiatives and shows that after agencies have defined their public management problem, they go through four different phases of the OI process: (1) idea generation through crowdsourcing, (2) incubation of submitted ideas with peer voting and collaborative improvements of favorite solutions, (3) validation with a proof of concept of implementation possibilities, and (4) reveal of the selected solution and the (internal) implementation of the winning idea. Participation and engagement are incentivized both with monetary and non-monetary rewards, which lead to tangible solutions as well as intangible innovation outcomes, such as increased public awareness.


Mergel, I. (2014): Opening Government: Designing Open Innovation Processes to Collaborate With External Problem Solvers, in: Social Science Computer Review, Special Issue: Open Government, doi: 10.1177/0894439314560851.

Social Technologies in Local Government Emergency Management #SMEM

Over Social Technologies in Emergency Managementthe summer we discovered and analyzed over 400 social media accounts of local government emergency managers in the five counties around Syracuse, NY. We included fire departments, law enforcement agencies, emergency medical care providers, public health organizations, and executive emergency management departments. The goal is to understand how (social media tactics) and what (social media content) emergency managers communicate online before, during and after an incident.

Social Technologies in Emergency ManagementThis week we presented our initial findings to the counties and had a very interesting conversation about local government needs and concerns when it comes to social media use.

We put together a draft report for practitioners highlighting their own good practices and practices we observed in other local governments following FEMA’s and DHS’ guidelines on how to use social media. The report and website will be continuously updated to reflect our newest findings.

Github for Government paper

I just returned from Germany where I presented a paper at the European Group of Public Administration Annual Conference (EGPA) at the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer.

I participated in a track on innovation in public administration and shared my paper titled “Introducing Open Collaboration in the Public Sector: The Case of Social Coding on Github“. The paper is based on a series of interviews I conducted over the summer with Github users in the U.S. federal government and quantitative data downloaded from Github’s API.

Here is the abstract:

Open collaboration has evolved as a new venue for innovation creation in the public sector. Government organizations are using online platforms to crowdsource and co-produce public sector innovations with the help of external and internal problem solvers. Most recently the U.S. federal government has allowed agencies to collaboratively create and share open source code on the social coding platform Github. A community of government employees is sharing open source code for website development, data sources, but also draft policy documents on Github. Quantitative data extracted from Github’s application programming interface is used to analyze the social network relationships between contributors to government code and the reuse of open government tools developed on Github. In addition, qualitative interviews with government contributors in this social coding environment provide practical insights into new forms of co-development of open source code and policy drafting in the public sector.

I also posted the full paper to SSRN. I’m still adding more interview data and need to do a more sophisticated network analysis before I can send this paper out for review. I would appreciate any feedback people might have to improve the paper.

Here is the full reference:

Mergel, Ines A., Introducing Open Collaboration in the Public Sector: The Case of Social Coding on Github (September 16, 2014). Available at SSRN:

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 6.33.20 PM

Learning vs. citing research

Elsevier just provided a new service to authors: A dashboard showing how often your article was viewed during the first year. I was pleased to see that over 1,400 people at least clicked on the article. It’s a bit of a vanity thing seeing that there is some interest in your work. Interestingly enough it doesn’t reflect how often the article was then also cited in those authors’ work. This certainly has to do with the time lag in the publication process – I expect citations with a lag of 2-3 years, but I wonder if this might also reflect the learning process of other authors and has little to do with the actual decision to cite:

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APSA conference paper: Twitter use in state emergency management #SMEM

Clayton Wukich and I presented a paper at the annual American Political Science Conference (APSA) in DC last week. We analyzed three communication modes state emergency managers use in all phases of emergency management. The working paper is available on SSRN:

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 7.25.33 AM



Wukich, Clayton and Mergel, Ines A., Closing the Citizen-Government Communication Gap: Content, Audience, and Network Analysis of Government Tweets (August 28, 2014). Available at SSRN:

New article: Social media adoption: Toward a representative, responsive, or interactive government?

I wrote a paper providing empirical evidence for a phased adoption framework of social media adoption in government that we published in 2013 in PAR. This new paper shows how government agencies move through stages of institutionalizing new technologies and how they adapt their internal standard operating procedures to reflect the changes in the way citizens interact with government.

The paper is available through the ACM Digital Library.

Here is the full reference:

Mergel, I. (2014): Social media adoption: toward a representative, responsive or interactive government?, in: dg.o ’14 Proceedings of the 15th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research, pp. 163-170, doi>10.1145/2612733.2612740.


Social media adoption is oftentimes seen as technologically determined by third parties outside of government, with government’s role limited to reactively jump on the bandwagon and respond to citizen preferences. However, social media interactions are emergent and challenging existing bureaucratic norms and regulations. This paper provides empirical evidence for the institutionalization stages government agencies’ move through when they are adopting new technologies. Adoption occurs at varying degrees of formalization and not all departments in the U.S. executive branch regulate and restrict the use of new technologies in the same way. The internal procedural and organizational changes that occur during the adoption process are extracted using qualitative interviews with social media directors in the 15 departments which received the executive order to “harness new technologies” in order to make the U.S. government more transparent, participatory and collaborative. In addition to the perceptions of federal social media directors, a process tracing approach was used to map the accompanying governance and institutional changes and follow-up orders to direct the adoption of social media. Tracing both the behavior of individual organizations as well as the institutional top-down responses, this paper is both relevant for academics as well as practitioners. It provides the basis for future large-scale research studies across all levels of government, as well as insights into the black box of organizational responses to a top-down political mandate.