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A phone with various apps on the screen, including FixMyStreet

Progressive web apps: what are they, and what can they do for us?

As you may have noticed, at mySociety we’ve never been big on apps — we tend to encourage access to our websites via your phone’s mobile browser instead. 

We design all our sites as ‘mobile first’, meaning that they work well on any size of device and automatically resize to fit any screen dimension. That’s good practice anyway, but as a small organisation it also saves us a lot of time and effort. 

But that presents an issue when we’re talking to potential FixMyStreet Pro clients, in authorities and councils, who often see an app as a very desirable part of their offering to citizens.

Now, thanks to the emergence of the ‘progressive web app’ (PWA), we’re exploring a whole new approach that we hope will please everyone, as our Developer Struan explains: 

We’ve been talking about what to do with the FixMyStreet app for a long time.

The app we offer at the moment runs from a separate codebase than the main FixMyStreet site, which means when we update features on FixMyStreet we then have to redo the same work for the app. 

As a result, it sometimes lags behind: for example there are various features — detection of duplicate reports, and display of assets like streetlights or grit bins, for example — that have never made it across.

And in all honesty? We have to admit that apps aren’t really our speciality. Generally speaking, you’d employ dedicated app developers and designers if you wanted to create really excellent app experiences. mySociety is a small organisation without big overheads — can’t complain, that’s what allows us to be nimble and responsive — and so far, we’ve stuck to doing what we do well.

With all that in mind, the FixMyStreet app is beginning to look quite old, and there are various aspects of it that don’t really meet with current expectations of how apps work.

Enter the PWA 

Loosely speaking, PWAs are a collection of technologies that you can add to a website that then give it ‘app like’ qualities. To all intents and purposes, a PWA-ified site looks and acts like an app: our client authorities will be able to add their own logos and colour palettes and tell their residents to ‘download the app’, and for the citizen, that’s just what it will feel like they’re doing.  

In practice, the app is effectively the website being viewed on a mobile screen, just as we sometimes recommend to users. But the PWA tech not only makes it look and feel like an app, it also allows it to be added to app stores and downloaded by users onto their screens via that route. It also adds a more ‘app-like’ navigation and a startup process.

Rather handily, PWAs also permit the addition of offline capability to your website, by downloading a bit of JavaScript (called a service worker) to your device. If you can’t connect to the website then it falls back to the service worker, which can also save reports when you have no connection and then upload them when you do. As a side benefit, all this will work with the standard mobile website too, and is something we’d want to add anyway.

One downside is that only the latest version of iOS supports all the things we need to make this work, although we note that iOS adoption rates are quite high. To make up for this a bit, alongside the PWA work we’ll be adding in some code to make the offline process a bit less jarring for those accessing the website on older versions of iOS.

Meanwhile, as far as we can tell, everything should go smoothly on Android.

So — lots of positives and we hope it will all come together in the near future. We’re continuing to explore this approach and will report back when we can say for certain whether it’s viable.

Image: Saulo Mohana

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