Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

E-Mail Makes a Comeback

As a communication medium, I think e-mail is making a comeback.

Don’t call it a comeback; I’ve been here for years.
– Ladies Love Cool James

I realize this seem patently ridiculous to anyone working furiously towards a state of inbox zero, or that struggles to maintain a reasonable number of unread e-mails in their account.

Let me explain.

E-mail has something of a bad rep. It’s one of the few channels on which we communicate regularly with others that almost all of us wish we could use less. We long for newer, faster, more social mediums on which to communicate with our co-workers, families and friends – Twitter, Facebook, SMS, IM – the list goes on

These new channels are the communication mediums of Friday night. E-mail is the communication medium of Monday morning.

As an application developer, the idea of building an e-mail app has never really appealed to me. Outside of supporting e-mail as a channel on outbound alerting systems, I’m not sure I’ve ever delved too deeply into building an app that uses e-mail. My focus has largely been on more interactive communication apps that use telephones, SMS, XMPP or social networks like Twitter to allow a back and forth between a user and an application (or a human agent transferred from an application).

But recently, I’ve noticed a change in the way that e-mail applications get built. I might be unconsciously glossing over my own particular biases in this area, but there are now some really cool and very powerful tools for building e-mail applications.

My favorite of late is Postmark – an awesome service that makes it easy to send outbound and receive inbound e-mails via a simple to use, well documented API. Postmark is geared towards “transactional” e-mails, not for sending out bulk announcements to a list – that instantly makes it more appealing to me and gets me thinking about applications I could build with it.

To get more familiar with how inbound e-mail applications can be built with Postmark, I put together a small Node.js + CouchDB application that demonstrates how to receive, process and store inbound messages. It’s a simple demo, but I think it underscores how easy it is to build a fairly powerful app that would allow for someone to submit a photo to a service that stores and categorizes them.

So why am I writing about e-mail on a blog focused on civic innovation?

Crowdsourcing art locations with e-mail apps

Two reasons – first, with services like Postmark it is now very easy (enjoyable even) to write innovative apps that support transactional e-mail. Consider the example discussed above – a simple application that accepts inbound e-mails with photo attachments.

It’s an easy transition from something like this to an application that allows someone to submit the location of a pothole, or graffiti, or a broken parking meter, or the location of a new mural.

And second, e-mail interaction is a critical component in how people communicate with their governments.

In a 2010 study, the Pew Internet and American Life Project looked at the various methods used by citizens to connect to their governments. E-mail was found to be an important mode of contacting government officials – in fact, it’s importance seems to be growing based on the findings of earlier studies:

In 2003, 17% of respondents said they preferred to visit a website and 9% preferred sending an email; in our current survey, those who prefer email contact rose to 18% and those who prefer visiting a website fell to 10%.

There is a lot of discussion going on these days about disrupting government – using new and innovative applications to change the way that governments operate and interact with citizens.

With services like Postmark, it’s easy to see how disruptive an e-mail application could be.

I think we’ll start to see new disruptive apps for municipal governments based around e-mail very soon.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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