APIs help agencies say 'yes'

Census Bureau's approach to data garners singular praise at FOSE trade show.

programmer

Programmers seeking to use government data will be aided by APIs that agencies are releasing under the Digital Government Strategy. (Stock image)

The White House’s Digital Government Strategy calls on federal agencies to roll out two application programming interfaces (APIs) that make high-value data and content available to the masses by May 23, the strategy's one-year milestone.

But several agencies made sure not to wait until the last minute to release their tools for sharing content and data between communities and applications, and some of the government’s best examples of API development were on display during a May 15 mobile development panel discussion at the FOSE trade show.

For example, the Census Bureau’s open-data API -- which General Services Administration Senior API Strategist Gray Brooks called the best API rollout of the past year -- makes key demographic, socioeconomic and housing data easily accessible to the public and developers, allowing them to create a slew of mobile applications with the data.

The bureau’s API includes statistics on population, sex, age, race, household relationship, and homeowner or renter status down to geographic blocks, and the information available goes back to the 1990 census, meaning three decades of data can now be compared.

Developers can create applications with those datasets that could, for instance, highlight commuting patterns by jurisdiction or provide local governments with a snapshot of an area’s socioeconomic diversity. And since it was unveiled in July 2012, the API been a massive success for the Census Bureau, with 180 million calls to date, 2,600 developer keys distributed and a thriving online community of more than 800 developers who share an open dialogue with one another and the agency.

“We have high-value datasets with thousands of data items, but the expectation of users is changing and a link is not good enough anymore, so we’ve changed by linking databases together through APIs,” said Stephen Buckner, assistant director of communications at the Census Bureau.

Buckner said the bureau makes use of the DataWeb at the center of its organization, which stores a variety of datasets along with metadata on which individual services the calls for data are made against. Everything the agency produces must be downloadable, sharable, printable and embeddable, and the open-data API -- often coupled with other tools -- increases traffic to the Census Bureau’s portals through increased dissemination of information. Whenever the API is embedded elsewhere, Buckner said, the bureau gets more referrals.

The effort sounds like a massive undertaking, especially considering the enormity of the information the bureau collects about each U.S. citizen, yet Buckner said teamwork between the bureau's IT and communications staffs expedited and improved the open-data API.

The bureau’s API is one of many in the federal space that highlight the growing importance of APIs in the Digital Age. Gone are the days when the public’s only option for requesting public information was to line up at the courthouse, and the PDF era is slowly fading. Now data is available with a few well-crafted developer keystrokes.

And those APIs, the panelists said, are getting better and being used for more and more applications. “The rich wealth of information maintained by the federal government is a national asset with tremendous potential value to the public, entrepreneurs and to our own government programs,” Brooks said. “We have vast ore reserves and mineral deposits in the tremendous amount of uncapped data we have that can power a mobile economy. It can power the user experience for every citizen living their lives.”

1105 Media, FCW's parent company, produces FOSE.

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