VanRoekel's open data strategy may have some limitations

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel is a strong supporter of APIs for government data, but a transparency group urges a broader perspective.

While Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel is a strong supporter of government-sponsored application programming interfaces, or APIs, to distribute federal data to the public, a major transparency group is suggesting that APIs alone can be limiting.

APIs are specifications that serve as interfaces between software. For example, Google Maps has an API that allows third-party websites to overlay restaurant reviews on top of Google Maps. APIs are what allow app developers to write apps that pull data from a database down to a user's smart phone or tablet computer. The API controls what information is accessible to the third-party sites or devices, and how it can be used. 

VanRoekel famously said, “Everything should be an API,” in April 2011, according to news reports, including a report by O'Reilly Radar. At that time VanRoekel was leading the redesign of the FCC.gov website in his previous role as FCC managing director.

He has continued to endorse APIs as a means for distributing government data from sites such as Data.gov. ”VanRoekel is vocal in his support of open data and the use of APIs,” wrote Justin Ellis in an article published March 13 by Nieman Journalism Lab. In the article, VanRoekel also spoke of APIs as providing a platform to users to experience government data in interesting ways, as an alternative to simply pushing out data through a 'dumb pipe.'  While he may not advocate APIs as the exclusive channel for providing data to the public, it's clearly his preferred course of first resort.

However, Sunlight Labs, an arm of the prominent transparency group Sunlight Foundation, suggests that APIs should be only one of the strategies for distributing government data -- and not necessarily the first choice. Sunlight did not connect their conclusions to VanRoekel specifically, but their thoughts do concern the technology VanRoekel champions.

APIs should be used to supplement, not displace, the availability of direct data downloads to the public, Eric Mill, Web and mobile developer for Sunlight, wrote in a March 21 blog entry on the Sunlight Labs Blog.

Mill presented several reasons why direct data downloads are still the best default strategy. For one, developing government APIs to distribute data might actually limit flexibility for users of the data, Mill wrote.

“There's no way to predict ahead of time the right data format and structure for every client who's interested in your data. Expect clients to need to transform your data for their own requirements, and for that transformation to require clients to first obtain all of your data,” Mill wrote.

In addition, creating APIs is time-consuming, expensive and difficult for government agencies, he added.

“Providing bulk access is several orders of magnitude less work on the part of the provider than building and maintaining an API,” Mill wrote in the blog. “An API is a system you need to design, create, keep running, attend to, and worry about. Bulk data access is uploading some files, forgetting about it, and letting [hyper text transfer protocol, or] HTTP do the work.”

Overall, government should take a nuanced view of APIs, Mill recommended. VanRoekel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“To sum up, Sunlight is pro-API - we make our own, and we welcome them from the government when they enhance access to information (the FederalRegister.gov API is a particularly good example),” Mill wrote. “However, the first step government should take, in nearly all cases, is to offer the data directly and in bulk.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.