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Quick, show this article to the boss, before they ask you to spin your own crisis comms Power App in 2 days

Microsoft's convoluted Power Apps freebie shows shortcomings of platform

As millions of businesses adopt hasty remote-working policies, Microsoft has posted a "Crisis communications" solution for its Power Apps platform – the idea being that with just a few (hundred) steps, users will be able to show their whereabouts, request help and more.

At a time of international crisis, companies like Microsoft are keen to show how their tech can help, conscious perhaps that this is one occasion when altruism and marketing can happily coexist.

Power Apps is Microsoft's platform for no-code application development, intended to empower users to come up with solutions without the need to trouble the IT department. It makes best sense for businesses which already have a substantial part of their data on Microsoft’s platform, such as in Office 365, Dynamics 365, SharePoint and so on.

The story of the "Crisis communications solution" began a week ago, with a post on the Power Apps blog stating:

On Monday afternoon, as news of COVID-19 cases spread globally, we pulled together a team to help customers coordinate their own information sharing and team collaboration in response to evolving conditions in times of crisis. Today, less than 48 hours later, we're releasing the first version of that solution for any customer organization to quickly implement.

The app was placed on GitHub and the company posted information on how to install it – while adding the disclaimer that, among other things, "This app is a sample and may be used with Microsoft Power Apps and Teams for dissemination of reference information only … Customer bears the sole risk and responsibility for any use of this app."

What licence do you need to deploy the app? Microsoft said: "Users who are licensed to use Power Apps and Power Automate (e.g. via an Office 365 license) can use this app and related flows. We are also giving all Power Apps users temporary access to a premium feature, Power Apps Push Notifications, to use Power Apps to push information to use."

Does this mean any Office 365 user is licensed? We have asked for clarification; or you can try to figure it out from the licensing guide.

The app has a few functions. Users can declare their status (meaning where they are working), read company bulletins, view an RSS feed (intended for "government news"), see emergency contacts, and request help.

Is it practical?

How useful is it, compared to, say, just sending emails or posting messages in Teams or Slack? The most interesting feature is the ability to set status. Oddly there is nothing built into the app that lets you see the status of colleagues, though it does offer to set up an "out of office" auto-reply in Outlook. When you submit your status, the app has an option to send location coordinates to a SharePoint list, and Microsoft explains how you might use Power BI to "monitor office absences" using that data.

Overall the functionality looks rather incomplete and not that useful as-is, but Microsoft said it would "work closely with the community to add capabilities" and if you are a Power Apps expert you could customise as needed.

How easy is it, though? That is a key question. When Microsoft said it was offering a Power Apps app to its customers, we expected that admins could deploy the app with a few clicks. This is not the case, and the installation instructions comprise a 4,500-word article (51 pages when we copied them into Word). Alternatively you can watch a 25-minute video. Microsoft said "estimated time to complete these steps: 20-25 minutes" so we had a go, using an Office 365 E3 subscription.

The data for the application is in SharePoint lists, so the starting point is to create a new site. The docs say to make it public within the organisation, which raises some confidentiality issues: you probably do not want every employee to be able to check out the location coordinates of everyone else. Leaving that aside, what you do next is to head to the GitHub repository to download the assets then generate the required SharePoint lists using a Power Automate flow.

Editing the Crisis Communications app in Power Apps Studio

Editing the Crisis Communications app in Power Apps Studio

Next, you create the app itself in Power Apps, importing the app from the downloaded assets and modifying it in the online Studio designer. The links to the SharePoint lists have to be amended since the template does not know the location of your lists. You also have to create a new Team for the app, and then copy and paste some GUIDs (Globally Unique Identifiers) from your new Team into app variables. Then you have to import a second Power App which is for administration, and copy and paste a couple for GUIDs. You are not done yet; it is back to Flow to get notifications working. Next, to add the app to Teams, you have to download it as a zip file and upload it in the Teams admin center. The same applies when you want to update it.


The admin app lets you fire off crisis bulletins to your users

We did all this and the app mostly works, though for some reason we have "Hello," on the home page; it seems that the formula for inserting the username is not quite right. We also have an email – "one of your flows has failed" – but no doubt all this can be fixed with a few tweaks. Looking at GitHub issues and the feedback, running into issues is common but there is also appreciation, like: "I learned a lot setting it up. For me, building this app is the only good thing to come out of this crisis."

Setting up this application is indeed educational, if you have not tangled with Power Apps before. On the positive side, even if you spend a day chasing up GUIDs and puzzling out Flow errors, it is still a quick way to get a business application up and running. There are quite a few snags, though.

Even with a skilled Microsoft team putting the app together, there are plenty of pitfalls, and we think citizen developers should not need to be copying GUIDs or, more seriously, have to work out which GUIDs to copy. The integration between Power Apps, SharePoint and Teams is not as smooth as you would hope, and the process for updating the app when fixes or enhancements arrive in the GitHub repository looks depressingly manual. We would also echo Microsoft's disclaimer: treat this as a sample rather than rushing to deploy it. ®

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