How Apple Does Civic Tech

July 09, 2021

On June 7th, 2021 Apple announced at WWDC that they would provide a mobile driver’s license on the iPhone. As a former government employee and citizen I was a bit surprised that the motor vehicle departments across the United States were able to execute on this without anyone knowing. I wanted to learn more, so did what any good government reporter would do: file public records requests. With help from Mike Morisy at MuckRock I filed public records requests with twenty five states (every one that had an accessible motor vehicle or licensing department in the MuckRock database) and waited to see what I got back. In response I got a window into Apple’s approach to building a government standard.

The first thing I learned is the majority of states have not yet committed to this program. As I got responses to my requests, many either said they had no responsive records or clearly articulated that they were not collaborating with Apple nor working on a mobile phone driver’s license program. Many states simply sent back a form email from someone in the Apple Pay/Wallet group that was soliciting their agency to partner on the product after the announcement. Apple clearly was hoping the glitz and excitement of their announcement would cajole government into participating.

As Apple approached states they already had engaged with the TSA and shared with Illinois that they had eleven states onboard with the program. The identity of those eleven states remains a bit of a mystery. They might include New Jersey and Florida whom asked for money to get copies of their responsive records. We know a bunch of states that they are not. However California, despite rejecting my request for their records, did share some emails that confirmed they have been partnering and working with Apple on this program. This makes sense given they are a hometown company, and as a Massachusetts resident I am a bit jealous.

Both the Illinois and California emails are interesting reads if you’re in Civic Tech. Rather than government starting with a user need and developing its own tools, this starts with a private company that has done a lot of work for government and is now trying to get it to come along for the ride. Apple tries to keep the burden on government as low as possible. There is a lot of touching base, checking in, and meetings. We see government push back on certain things as the work begins to bump up against state procurement rules. In many ways the Apple Mobile Driver’s License is a reverse procurement: Apple is asking the state to do work and create a product/feature for it. The question in my mind is are the states doing this work in a way that is open and accessible to other companies?

In a perfect world government would have an open and documented standard for mobile driver’s licenses. Their systems would allow any legitimate company or organization to connect to them for lawful purposes. The standard(s) would be developed in collaboration with other states and make it easy for a company like Apple to wake-up one day and build a mobile driver’s license that works everywhere. In the absence of this, Apple had to do much of the legwork. While this is great for Apple and users of its products like me, it means other software companies that want to compete with Apple’s Wallet software might not get the same access and opportunity.

Want to get posts like this in your email?

This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.