Every City, County and State Should Have an API

by Kin Lane, API Evangelist Twitter LinkedIn Github Email

Have you ever tried to get data from a government agencies website?  Often, when you find what your looking for, its in a PDF format.  Not really a data friendly format.  If your lucky, you will find a spreadsheet, but usually they are laid out in a report format and not meant for actual data portability.

I have a personal obsession for finding, crunching and making sense out of local, state, and federal government data.  I'm willing to do a lot of work to derive meaning about how our government works.  I personally feel its my duty to lend a hand, but while doing so, I often get overwhelmed parsing PDF files and often have to rearrange data by hand, or just give up on my project entirely.

I've always blamed the the "government bureaucracy for this--it is some sort of conspiracy to hide what is really going on. However, recently I'm beginning to change my tune.  I'm getting a feeling that maybe it goes deeper then with government operations.  Its the technology they are given.  

While trying to understand more about the technology our government uses, I came across a post by Matt MacDonald.  Matt is trying to get data from his local town of Watertown, MA.  After looking around he encountered the same issues.  All he could get were PDFs and Excel "reports", which seems to be the common language of government when comes to data portability.

After not getting what he was looking for he went to the source, the company that built the tools his town used, TylerTech.  TylerTech builds systems for municipalities to manage services ranging from property taxes to school information systems.

Matt reached out to TylerTech, and asked whether or not they had an API for their systems available for their town, but he’s just gotten a couple cookie cutter responses, and no real information.   I reached out to TylerTech for comment on this story, and have not received a response.

As I said I'm changing my tune about who is to blame.  The average government or school administration can only work with what is given to them.  In the case of Watertown, its Munis from TylerTech.

TylerTech is 50 year old company with almost 300 Million in annual revenue, servicing a number of cities across the country.  The only mention of an API on the TylerTech site is part of their Eagle Product Suite:
Eagle Software is engineered with XML Web Services in mind — unlike many systems, where XML transactions are an afterthought. Taking advantage of open standards, WSDL and SOAP, Eagle Software can expose a robust API — simplifying external system integration with Java, .NET, VB, C++, C#, COBOL and others.
Without talking with TylerTech this appears to be an add-on suite, and not a standard offering.  Web Services need to be brought into the foreground, and made standard in all installations.  Not an afterthought, or add-on.

When it comes to public data we need to have a high standard, and we need to expect more out of the technology that is purchased with our tax dollars.   In this time time of economic crisis our municipalities are already overburdened with doing their regular job, they can't be expected to to do extra work, and even better, they could use the help of citizens like myself and Matt, who want to help make sense of data, build apps, and help make government more efficient.

We can't do it without access to the right data, and APIs are the perfect way for the government to share data in real-time.  They need to be given tools and training that allow them share and publish data in real-time without extra effort.  PDF is not Portable Data Format...its a Portable Document Format.  XML export is a start, but it still just an export....its not an API.  With an API, municipalities can share data with the public in a self-service way, that still allows the government to understand who is accessing data, and how they are using it.

I look to technology companies like TylerTech to lead, and provide our government with the tools they need to open data, and let the rest of the tech community build web and mobile applications for the government, and crunch data to help them be more efficient, and make the most of taxpayers money.