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API Definition: Human Services API Specification

This is an article from the current edition of the API Evangelist industry guide to API definitions. The guide is designed to be a summary of the world of API definitions, providing the reader with a recent summary of the variety of specifications that are defining the technology behind almost every part of our digital world.

A lot of attention is given to APIs and the world of startups, but in 2017 this landscape is quickly shifting beyond just the heart of the tech space, with companies, organizations, institutions, and government agencies of all shapes and sizes are putting APIs to work. API definitions are being applied to the fundamental building blocks of the tech sector, quantifying the computational, storage, images, videos, and other essential resources powering web, mobile, and device based applications. This success is now spreading to other sectors, defining other vital resources that are making a real impact in our communities.

One API making an impact in communities is the Human Services Data Specification (HSDS), also known as the Open Referral Ohana API. The project began as a Code for America project, providing an API, website, and administrative system for managing the organizations, locations, and the human services that communities depend on. Open Referral, the governing organization for HSDS, and the Ohana API is working with API Evangelist and other partners to define the next generation of the human services data specification, API definition, as well as the next generation of API, website, admin, and developer portal implementations.

The HSDS Specification API isn’t about any single API, it is a suite of API-first definitions, schema, and open tooling that cities, counties, states and federal government agencies can download or fork, and employ to help manage vital human services for their communities. Providing not just a website for finding vital services, but a complete API ecosystem that can be deployed incentivizing developers to build important web, mobile, and other applications on top of a central human services system. Better delivering on the mission of human services organizations, and meeting the demands of their constituents.

This approach to delivering APIs centers around a common data schema, extending it as an OpenAPI Spec definition, describing how that data is accessed and put to use across a variety of applications, including a central website and administrative system. While server-side HSDS API implementations, website, mobile, administrative, developer portal, and other implementations are important, the key to the success of this model is a central OpenAPI definition of the HSDS API. This definition connects all the implementations within an API’s ecosystem, but it also provides the groundwork for a future where all human services implementations are open and interoperable with other implementations--establishing a federated network of services meeting the needs of the communities they serve.

Right now each city is managing one or multiple human service implementations. Even though some of these implementations operate in overlapping communities, few of them are providing 3rd party access, let alone providing integration between overlapping geographic regions. The HSDS API approach employs an API-first approach, focusing on the availability and access of the HSDS schema, then adding on a website, administrative and API developer portals to support. This model opens up human services to humans via the website, which is integrated with the central API, but then also opens up the human services for inclusion into other websites, mobile and device applications, as well as integration with other systems.

The HSDS OpenAPI spec and schema provide a reusable blueprint that can be used to standardize how we provide human services. The open source approach to delivering definitions, schema, and code reduces the cost of deployment and operation for cash-strapped public organizations and agencies. The API-first approach to delivering human services also opens up resources for inclusion in our applications and system, potentially outsourcing the heavy lifting to trusted partners, and 3rd party developers interested in helping augment and extend the mission of human service organizations and groups.

If you’d like to learn more about the HSDS API you can visit Open Referral. From there you can get involved in the discussion, and find existing open source definitions, schema, and code for putting HSDS to work. If you’d like to contribute to the project, there are numerous opportunities to join the discussion about next generation of the schema and OpenAPI Spec, as well as develop server-side and client-side implementations.


 If you have a product, service, or story you think should be in the API Evangelist industry guide to API design you can email me , or you can submit a Github issue for my API definition research, and I will consider adding your suggestion to the road map.