{"API Evangelist"}

Thinking About The Monetization Layer For Public Data

This is my walk-through of the concepts involved with the monetization of public data using APIs. In this work I am not advocating that companies should be mindlessly profiting from publicly available data, my intent is to provide a framework for organizations to think through the process of generating revenue from commercial access to public data, acknowledging that it costs money to aggregate, serve up, and keep data up to date and usable for the greater public good--if public data is not accessible, accurate, and up to date it is of no use to anyone.

I have long argued that companies and even government agencies should be able to charge for commercial access to public data and be able to generate revenue to cover operational costs, and even produce much-needed funds that can be applied to the road map. My work in this has been referenced in existing projects, such as the Department of Interior and Forest Service looking to generate revenue from commercial access and usage of public data generated by the national parks systems. In my opinion, this conversation around generating revenue from publicly available digital assets should be occurring right alongside the existing conversations that already are going on around publicly available physical assets.

Building Upon The Monetization Strategies Of Leading Cloud Providers
My thoughts around generating revenue from public open data is built upon monitoring the strategies of leading online platforms like Amazon Web Services, Google, and others. In 2001 a new approach to providing access to digital resources began to emerge from Internet companies like Amazon and Salesforce, and by 2016, it has become a common way for companies to do business online, providing metered, secure access to valuable corporate and end-users data, content, and other algorithmic resources. This research looks to combine these practices into a single guide that public data stewards can consider as they look to fund their important work.

Do not get me wrong, there are many practices of leading tech providers that I am not looking to replicate when it comes to providing access to public data, let alone generating revenue. Much of the illness in the tech space right now is due to the usage of APIs, it is due to a lack of creative approaches to monetizing digital assets like data and content, and terms of service that do not protect the interest of users. My vantage point is the result of six years studying the technology, business, and politics of the API sector, while also working actively on open data projects within city, state, and federal government--I'm looking to strike a balance between these two worlds.

Using Common Government Services As A Target For Generating Much-Needed Revenue
For this research, I am going to use a common example of public data, public services. I am focusing in this area specifically to help develop a strategy for Open Referral but it is also a potential model that I can see working beyond just public services. I am looking to leverage my existing Open Referral work to help push this concept forward, but at the same time, I am hoping it will also provide me with some public data examples that are familiar to all of my readers, giving me with some relevant ways to explain some potentially abstract concepts like APIs to the average folk we need to convince.

For the sake of this discussion things down and focus on three areas of public data, which could be put to work in any city across the country:

Open Referral is a common definition for describing public services organizations, locations, and services, allowing the government, organizations, institutions, and companies to share data in a common way, which focuses on helping them better serve their constituents--this is what public data is all about, right? The trick is getting all players at the table to speak a common language, one that serves their constituents, and allows them to also make money.

While some open data people may snicker at me suggesting that revenue should be generated on top of open data describing public services, the reality is that this is already occurring--there are numerous companies in this space. The big difference is it is currently being done within silos, locked up in databases, and only accessible to those with the privileges and the technical expertise required. I am looking to bring the data, and the monetization out of the shadows, and expand on it in a transparent way that benefits everybody involved.

Using APIs To Make Public Data More Accessible and Usable In A Collaborative Way
Publicly available data plays a central role in driving websites, mobile applications, and system to system integrations, but simply making this data available for download only serves a small portion of these needs, and often does so in a very disconnected way, establishing data silos where data is duplicated, and the accuracy of data is often in question. Web APIs are increasingly being used to make data not just available for downloading, but also allow it to be updated, and deleted in a secure way, by trusted parties. 

For this example I am looking provide three separate API paths, which will give access to our public services data:

A website provides HTML information for humans, and web APIs provides machine readable representations of the same data, making it open for use in a single website, but also potentially multiple websites, mobile applications, visualizations, and other important use cases. The mandate for public data should ensure it isn't available on a single website but is as many scenarios that empower end-users as is possible. This is what APIs excel at, but is also something that takes resources to do properly, making the case for generating revenue to properly fund the operations of APIs in the service of the public good.

The Business of Public Data Using Modern Approaches to API Management
One of the common misconceptions of public web APIs is that they are open to anyone with access to the Internet, with no restrictions. This might be the case for some APIs, but increasingly government agency, organizations, and institutions are making public data available securely using common API management practices defined by the Internet pioneers like Salesforce, Amazon, and Google over the last decade.

API management practices provide some important layers on top of public data resources, allowing for a greater understanding and control over how data is accessed and put to use. I want to provide an overview of how this works before I dive into the details of this approach by outlining some of the tenets of an API management layer:

These seven areas provide some very flexible variables which can be applied to the technical, business, and politics of providing access to public data using the Internet. Before you can access the organizations, locations, and service information via this example public services API you will need to be a registered user, with an approved application, possessing valid API keys. Each call to the API will contain these keys, identifying which tier of access an application is operating within, which API paths are available, the rate limits in existence, and logging of everything you consume and add so it can be included as part of any operational analytics. 

This layer enables more control over public data assets, while also ensuring data is available and accessible. When done thoughtfully, this can open up entirely new approaches to monetization of commercial usage by allowing for increased rate limits, performance, and service level agreements, which can be used to help fund the public data's mandate to be accessible by the public, researchers, and auditors.

Providing The Required Level Of Control Over Public Data Access
Understandably, there concerns when it comes to publishing data on the Internet. Unless you have experience working with modern approaches to delivering APIs it can be easy to focus on losing control over your data when publishing on the web--when in reality data stewards of public data can gain more control over their data when using APIs over just publishing for a complete download. There are some distinct ways that API providers are leveraging modern API management practices to evolve greater levels of control over who accesses data, and how it is put to use.

I wanted to highlight what can be brought to the table by employing APIs in service of public data, to help anyone make the argument for why providing machine readable data via APIs is just as important as having a website in 2016:

It is important to discuss, and quantify this control layer of any public data being made available via APIs if we are going to talk about monetization. Having APIs is not enough to ensure platform success, and sometimes too strict of control can suffocate consumption and contribution, but a lack of some control elements can also have a similar effect, encouraging the type of consumption and contribution that might not benefit a platform's success. A balanced approach to control, with a sensible approach to management and monetization, has helped API pioneers like Amazon achieve new levels of innovation, and domination using APIs--some of this way of thinking can be applied to public data by other organizations.

Enabling and Ensuring Access To Public Data For Everyone It Touches
Providing access to data through a variety of channels for commercial and non-commercial purposes is what modern API management infrastructure is all about. Shortly after possessing a website became normal operating procedure for companies, organizations, institutions, and government agencies, web APIs began to emerge to power networks of distributed websites, embeddable widgets, and then mobile applications for many different service providers. APIs can provide access to public data, while modern API management practices ensure that access is balanced and in alignment with platform objectives--resulting in the desired level of control discussed above.

There are a number of areas of access that can be opened up by employing APIs in the service of public data:

In a world that is increasingly defined by data, access to quality data is important and easy, secure access via the Internet is part of the DNA of public data in this world. API management provides a coherent way to define access to public data, adhering to the mandate that the data is accessible, while also striking a balance to ensure the quality, reliability, and completeness of the public data.

There has been a lot of promises made in the past about what open or public data can do by default when in reality opening up data is not a silver bullet for public services, and there is a lot more involved in successfully operating a sustained public data operation. APIs help ensure data resources are made available publicly, while also opening up some new revenue generation opportunities, helping ensure access is sustainable and continues to provide value--hopefully find a balance between public good and any sensible commercial aspirations that may exist.

APIs Open Up Many Potential Applications That Support the Mission
As doing business on the web became commonplace in the early 21st century, Amazon was realizing that they could enable the sales of their books and other products on the websites of their affiliate partners by using APIs. In 2016 there are many additional applications being developed on top of APIs, with delivering public data to multiple web sites being just the beginning.

This is just an overview of the number of ways in which a single, or multiple APIs can be used to deliver public data to many different endpoints, all in service of a single mission. When you consider this in support of public services, a bigger picture of how APIs and public data can be used to better serve the population--the first step always involved standardized, well-planned set of APIs being made available.

The Monetization Requirements Around Public Data API Operations
This is where we get to the portion of this discussion that is specifically about monetization of the operations around publishing and maintaining high-quality sources of public data. Before a sensible monetization strategy can be laid out, we need to be able to quantify what it costs to operate the platform and generate the expected value from everyone at the table.

What are the hard costs that should be considered when operating a public data platform and looking to establish some reasonable monetization objectives?

Understand The Value Being Generated By Public Data
Now that we understand some of our hard costs, let's have an honest conversation about what value is being generated? First, public data has to offer value, or why are we doing all this hard work? Second, nobody is going to pay for anything if it doesn't offer any value. Let's stop for a moment and think about why we are doing all of this in the first place, and what value is worthy of carving off to drive monetization efforts.

While there may be other hard costs associated, as well as areas of value being generated, this should provide a simple checklist that any open data provider can use as a starting blueprint. Additional costs can be included on in these existing areas or added on as new areas as deemed relevant--this is just about getting the monetization conversation going.

There are two main objectives in this exercise: 1) understanding the hard costs and value associated with operations 2) assembling into a coherent list so that we can explain to others as part of transparency efforts. When it comes to the business of public data, it is more than just generating revenue, it is about being upfront and honest about why we are doing this, and how it is done--mitigating the political risk involved with doing business with public resources out in the open.

Putting Together A Working Plan Involving Public Data
With an understanding of the hard costs of providing a public data platform and an awareness of the intended value to be generated via operations, we can now look at what details would be involved in a plan for executing this monetization strategy. API management practices are architected for metering, measuring, and limiting access to data, content, and algorithmic resources in service of a coherent, transparent public data monetization strategy. 

Here is a core framework of API management that can be applied to public data that can be used to drive monetization efforts:

These are the moving parts of a public data monetization strategy. It allows any public data resources to be made available on the web, enabling self-service access to data 24/7. However, it does it in a way that requires accountability by ALL consumers, whether they are internal, partner, or the public at large. This API management scaffolding allows for the frictionless access to public data resources by the users and applications that are identified as worthwhile, and imposing limits, and fees for higher volume and commercial levels of access. 

Speaking To A Wide Audience With This Public Data Monetization Research
I purposely wrote this document to speak to as wide as possible audience as possible. In my experience working with public data across numerous different industries, there can be a wide variety of actors involved in the public data stewardship pipeline. My objective is to get more public data accessible via web APIs, and generating revenue to help fund this is one of my biggest concerns. I am not looking to incentivize people in making unwarranted profits on top of public data, this is already going on. My goal is open up the silos of public data out there right now, make them more accessible, while opening up the opportunity for delivering to a variety of applications, while also funding this important process.

I wanted to help anyone reading this to craft a coherent argument for generating much-needed revenue from public data, whether they are trying to convince a government agency, non-profit organization, institution, or a commercial company. Public data needs to be available in a machine-readable way for use in a variety of applications in 2016--something that takes resources and collaboration. APIs are not another vendor solution, they are the next step in the evolution of the web, where we don't just make data available for humans by publishing as HTML--we need the raw data available for use in many different applications.