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US gov spunks $200K on busted weather app

iPhone version a bargain at $56,000

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications

The US Department of Labor spent more than $200,000 (£129,000) creating a mobile application telling people to drink four cups of water every hour, and didn't even manage to get a BlackBerry version working.

The money was spent with UK-owned Eastern Research Group, who produced the "Heat Safety Tool" for Android (at $96,000), iPhone ($56,000), and spent $40,000 developing a BlackBerry version which never got released. The app is supposed to pick up local temperatures and recommend suitable behaviour, but believes that it's 60°C in Boston and that one should drink a cup of water every 15 minutes.

Android developer Rich Jones stumbled across the application, and having established its quality became curious about how much the Occupational Safety and Health Administration spent developing it. He submitted a Freedom of Information request and discovered the surprising outlay, which was spent with the do-anything consultants Eastern Research Group, part of the UK-based AEA Group - "A world leading energy & climate change consultancy".

We've asked AEA how it managed to bill the US Government more than $200,000 for what is, essentially, an application which picks up the local temperature from the internet and displays pre-programmed text based on that number.

Rich Jones reckons he could develop the same thing for less than $2,000, but for a better comparison one might look to our own government's efforts.

The NHS Drinks Tracker allows one to tally up a night's drinking, it synchronises with a desktop version and throws the collected data into the NHS cloud (where, we're reliably informed, it is deleted). That cost £10,000 to develop in its entirety, $15,559 in American money.

UK Job Centres did spend £32,775 ($51,006 at today's rate) on the Job Search iPhone app, but that does have to tie into the database of available vacancies and mashes with Google maps to display them.

Quite why the Heat Safety Tool cost the Americans so much more we don't know, the FoI response lists "conceptualization, requirements analysis, content development, clearance, translation, programming and software design ... testing and documentation" as contributing to the invoice total, but we can't help feeling there's an element of "what the market will bear" at play here.

We wouldn't be surprised to hear the department changed requirements frequently, and required huge amounts of documentation – we've worked with government departments before – but $200,000 still seems like an awful lot of money.

AEA has yet to get back to us. ®

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