Hi. I’m Gray Brooks, Sr. API Strategist
at GSA’s Digital Government Innovation Center. In the next few minutes, I’m going to tell
you what APIs are and why you’ve been hearing so much about them.
APIs help computers, websites, or applications talk to each other without needing your help. The term actually stands for
“Application Programming Interface” …but don’t worry about what this acronym
stands for. There are already too many acronyms in government
as it is. Instead, focus on what they are for… By publishing APIs, you make possible Apps
that allow citizens, industry, and even other government agencies to more easily interact
with your information and services. But it’s not just a question of what Apps you have
the staff and resources to develop yourself. APIs allow non-profits, small businesses,
or concerned citizens to make their own Apps, too. With APIs, you make the rest of the world
a Partner to your mission. In other words, APIs fundamentally allow Innovation to flourish
and do so much more than you ever could on your own.
Recently, the National Archives and Government Printing Office launched live API access to
the entire Federal Register. Within months, the non-profit Sunlight Foundation
launched Scout, a tool that used the Federal Register API to provide instant email and
SMS alerts to any government activity. A citizen could enter a keyword, phrase, bill name,
or topic and receive live notifications to associated government work.
Every government agency makes public important information and services and you may wonder
what APIs do for your content. They supercharge it.
They do so by allowing you to easily support multiple interfaces to information so that
different users can interact with it however is best for them.
You can have one interface that supports advanced users, another that includes related information
useful to certain segments of visitors, or presentation layers optimized to different
Accessibility needs. APIs also allow a Personalized user experience
so that visitors can mix and match the content that is most useful to them.
And perhaps most importantly, your content can now be Integrated by interested third-parties
or sister agencies so that the public can benefit from your content anywhere online
instead of only at your website. As part of a complete overhaul, the Federal
Communications Commission set out to provide API access to their entire website.
This allowed them to quickly build My.FCC.gov, which offers a customizable dashboard of agency
information, personalized to the user’s needs. Any dashboard can be shared and the
widgets embedded on other websites. APIs allow the Automation of countless manual
tasks, freeing you up to do more – faster and more efficiently. There’s just no need
to do by hand what can now be maintained Automatically. More so, APIs act as a Platform on which you
can then further build. Think of APIs as scaffolding that allow your team to then stand and build
upon them. The role of APIs aren’t a fad. The entire
Internet is undeniably shifting to an API-based model. There are many reasons why the private
sector is already quite far along. Every major website you visit today is using APIs. The
pragmatic use of APIs is an Inevitable part of your digital strategy and if you haven’t
started yet, now is the time to begin. For two hundred years, the Census Bureau has
made public important national data that impacts us all. This year, for the first time, they released
a complete API and the results speak for themselves. Within weeks, over 1,000 developers were using
the API and the apps they are building already average 57 service calls per second. Clearly,
this model works. Ask yourself: ‘What information does my
agency make public? What services do we provide online? By Auditing your website and using
analytics to discern the top tasks of your visitors, you’ll see your web presence as
chunks of data and information that you provide. And if there’s a group of visitors that
come to your website to consume that information, then there are certainly use cases for enabling
an API that allows even more citizens to benefit from that material at other sites they go
to. It’s useful to begin viewing your web presence
as the collection of data and services that you provide the public. The parts that make
up that collection are your candidates for APIs. First, start with the low hanging fruit.
Do a couple of small Prototype projects to get your feet wet. Remember, the third API
you produce is easier than the second. And the fourth is easier than the third. Don’t
worry about perfection, but give it a first try and include opportunities for feedback.
The means for turning static content into APIs are now freely at hand. It’s just a
matter of getting started. Finally, make a point to Integrate APIs going
forward. If you have a project that is currently in
the planning, procurement, or implementation stages, simply add a requirement that the
information also be provided as an API. Your IT department can take it from there, but
you need to ensure that the requirement is included.
For your existing systems, begin a conversation with stakeholders and operations staff about
what would be entailed to make some or all of it available as an API. The technology
readily exists to take static files like spreadsheets and database exports and create dynamic access
to them. Providing APIs is more about shifting the conversation and that’s a responsibility
we all need to take on. For more examples to follow, simply look at
what other agencies are already doing. Take their models and apply them to your own situation.
Then, go and do likewise.