Beyond Public APIs In Government: Internal Access to Resources

The conversation around open data and APIs in government is dominated by talk of making resources available to the public, which is a good thing, but is only 1/3 of the discussion that should be occurring amongst gov-focused techies, as well as the project owners, and data stewards who are managing these vital public resources across federal agencies.

APIs are not just deployed to support public access to resources, this has just been the trend that is getting all the headlines, and there is still lot of value to be realized when putting APIs to work within an agency, opening up access to data, content, and other digital resources, increasing efficiency agency-wide using Internet technology. The best example of this in action is out of the private sector from Amazon, and the story of the important role internal APIs have played in the company's success, across internal operations, but also in the public as a commerce, and a cloud computing leader.

To help you relate to the idea of an internal API, think of all the times you've had to ask IT for access to something from a database, like a list of facility locations, government programs, or maybe an employee directory. You have to find out where the source of these resources are, track down the right contact information, then put in a request to get a copy of the data or content you are looking for. Often times even once you get the data dump, it could be the wrong information, or missing what you are needing, requiring you to go back, yet again, to get what you are looking for--not very efficient, and also extremely frustrating.

Access To The Resources You Need
When you open up data or content via an API, despite common belief, you aren't necessarily making the information available to anyone on the open Internet, you are just using Internet technology to make it accessible. In some cases, you may publish the fact that the information is available in a public location, but can require that only internal staff has access to it. Regardless of exactly how you approach, the information, and registration for access of an API should always be available in a self-service way, allowing anyone to discover, and gain access without requesting permission from IT, or having to hunt down the source. In a perfect API world every agency will have a central API area where anyone can find all the resources available across the agency, eliminating many of the bottlenecks that commonly exist across government.

APIs Are Not Just For Developers
Developers would like to think APIs are just for them, but this is a reflection of the historic power and control IT has wielded when controlling access to databases, file stores, and other digital resources that are used across government agencies. Sure, APIs require knowing how to access the resource, and potentially the ability to write code that will pull, parse, and publish information to where it is needed, but APIs can just as easily be connected to spreadsheets, documents, and have ready to go HTML listings, details, and other fully functional widgets. This approach to API consumption has been pioneered by private sector technology companies, allowing tech savvy users to reverse engineer API access or put to use as is—no development experience necessary.

Data And Content Kept Up To Date In Realtime
Without APIs, when you finally do get the list of facilities, programs or contacts from IT, it might already be out of date. If you are requiring IT to provide a dump of data in XML, CSV, spreadsheet or other format, it is just that—a dump. Any changes made in the central database will not be reflected in your dump, rendering your work obsolete, and potentially turning it from information, to misinformation. APIs allow you to keep a connection between the information source, and your web and mobile application, spreadsheet or other system, up to date in realtime. Even if updating your project is manual, at least you have a realtime connection to the original source that you can use to update as you dictate, not based on only when you can get  the IT resources to help.

Analytics For Data And Content Owners On Who Is Using
APIs are not just about getting users access to the data and content they need in their projects, it goes both ways, and can provide a wealth of valuable information to the database administrator, content owner, and data steward who is in charge of the vital government resource. With everyone accessing your resources via an API, you have a realtime pulse on who has access to your resources and rich details on how they are using it. Do you know who is consuming your digital resources today? It is likely you do not, and this new approach using web APIs come with built in tools for truly understanding who has access, while also allowing for access in realtime without demanding extra time and attention, but when you are ready you can audit and understand how these resources are actually being put to use across an agency.

Thinking Beyond Public APIs At Your Agency
Understanding that APIs are much more than just making data available to public developers is extremely important, and can transform how your agency works. Amazon managed to internalize APIs in such a way that changed not just how they do business when it came to online commerce on, but transformed the way we all do business on the Internet. Imagine if a federal agency could see APIs the same, and allow the accessing of internal resources in a similar way, it could entirely change how government services are delivered.

If all digital resources at an agency could be made available via APIs, it has the potential dramatically shift how agencies operate. Right now most agencies already have a wealth of internal web services that somewhat resemble modern web APis, the problem is they are designed by, and deployed for IT and developer stakeholders, not everyone else in the organization. The significant difference between web service and APIs is that APIs use Internet technologies to make data and content available in a very simple way, that if bundled with the right building blocks can make vital resources accessible to anyone across the agency.

IT and developers are fine with just publishing an API and calling it good, as they know how to access these APis without assistance. With just a little more thought, and work, connectors, widgets, and spreadsheet tools can make resources much more widely available across an organization, department and even agency-wide. Undoubtedly it will take a lot of work to shift how IT makes resources available, but there are also tools to help content owners, and data stewards to deploy and consume their own APIs. There are wealth of database, and spreadsheet to API solutions available, as well as content management system (CMS) to API solutions for common platforms like Drupal and Wordpress. Ideally IT gets on board with an API centric vision, but it isn't a requirement in 2014, where waves of web APIs are emerging providing access to the resource you need to solve the problems you face in your everyday world, with or without IT being involved.