Category Archives: API

What happened at the first Public Sector API meetup?

On 30 April we held our first Public Sector API meetup at the National Audit Office.  We had about twenty people turn up from a wide variety of backgrounds.

A few people have asked what happened at the meetup? So I will highlight a few points here though I did miss a fair amount as I was letting people into the building.

We did discuss in passing how to keep in touch and share ideas so I have set up a Google group. There is already a discussion taking place about tools and techniques.

In addition we also thought it was worthwhile trying to crowdsource what public sector APIs exist. So we have started a list in a Github wiki. Feel free to chip in with any more public sector API that you are aware of.

We are hoping to link across to the wiki from the page on Government Digital Service Design Manual pages about API.

These are pretty positive outcomes so far but perhaps the biggest one it that there is a group of people with a common interest in APIs who are finding it a bit easier to find and talk to each other.

Oh and we did go to the pub…

Why do we need a public sector API group?

Somewhat rashly last week I decided to create a Public Sector API Meetup Group.

Why, I hear you ask?

The idea has been strongly influenced by Paul Hallett who set up the #LondonAPI meetup group where I have attended, I think, every meeting. They have been great meetings and much credit is due to Paul for lining up some great speakers who have been very willing to share so many excellent tips.

Why do we need a public sector group then?

Partly because, as far as I can see, most of the people who go to Paul’s meetup are from the private sector. Is that a bad thing? No. In fact for me this has been one of the strengths – seeing the commercial drive behind APIs and the rigour around making businesses work profitably around APIs. There is lot the public sector can learn from this approach.

I am hoping that because I know mainly people in the public sector we can start to replicate what Paul has done who knows maybe we only need one group in the long run?

In the meantime these are the issues I think we can look at as a group.

Standards

Are we working to the same standards in the public sector?

Should we be?

It is clear that there are divergent thoughts on this topic amongst developers but presumably in the public sector we have some responsibility to think about interoperability.

Do standards generate certification much like the Open Data Institutes #opendata certificates?

Categorisation

I keep expecting to find a directory of public sector APIs but have not come across one yet. Maybe I have been looking in the wrong place? If so please point me in the right direction. Programmable web have a great database of APIs and related content and there are some listed from the UK.

Do we need our own directory? Should we add our content to theirs? Do we need a standalone directory for the public sector. What kind of links should there be with data.gov.uk?

Collaboration

Perhaps the biggest thing for me, inspired by Jeremy Gould, is to bring together people with a common interest around a topic. This is always the most powerful of pushing things along and engaging with people.

Discoverability

A great point raised by Peter Wells @peterkwells

How does anyone know that our APIs exist? If there related to public services surely we have a responsibility to make sure the public know they exist? How do we make this easy and intuitive?

The (public sector) API economy

Of course what we should be aiming at is to contribute to the API economy and build services around freely available open data. This great article Wholesale Government: Open Data and APIs which is equally applicable to the UK has plenty of great suggestions.

 

Does any of that make sense? If so come along to the first meetup on 30 April at the NAO – just because I could easily find a room.

 

Do you have an API economy?

APIs have been around a long time. Not sure what an API is? The Next Web is worth reading on this…

As ever Wikipedia has a good answer: ‘In computer programming, an application programming interface (API) specifies how some software components should interact with each other.’

Sounds straight forward, or is it? Of course as is usual in the software world there are a number of different languages and schools of thought which we do not need to worry about here.

This might sound a bit geeky so what is the relevance to the real world or indeed the public sector?

Guess who is one of the biggest user of APIs? Its Amazon.

Internally all their teams create products that interact with other teams via APIs. This serves a number of purposes – it is a business tool to help Amazon build its own organisation in a modular manner – it’s a kind of plug and play. As a by-product these APIs are in effect being tested internally. If an API is seen to have a wider value it is made public to the outside world and this allows us as consumers to use the data either directly or indirectly.

But what is an API really? How about calling it a data stream that is documented so that others can use it. For example at the NAO we could make an API of a list of report publication dates, report titles, audit topics – this list would update as more reports are published. Someone in the outside world could then tap into this data stream and feed it into their own website or merge it with related data.

I have been to a couple of talks recently which brought home why people talk about an API economy.

There were two companies who generate significant portions of their revenue via APIs. For example 7digital.com an online music store with 22 million tracks is built on numerous APIs that feed the data they hold on all these tracks in different formats. Holidays Extra is another site built around APIs. One of their developers explained how recently they released a set of APIs and in a short time a whole ecosystem grew up around it using their data generating the kind of ideas and use of data that they would never have thought of themselves. Indirectly this led users back to their content and generated new revenue.

If you want a bit of fun Tesla the car company has just released some of their information as an API If you take a look you can see that by releasing this data it has allowed external developers to start building new applications based on this information.

Or look at the Transport API  if you want to see how an API economy can develop. The team pull together lots of different data sources, add value, and charge above a certain level for usage of the APIs.

Ok so that’s the private sector what about us in the public sector. Well take a careful look and you will see that organisations like the Office of National Statistics or DVLA are starting to release APIs. Why because they want others to use the data that they have collected; in some situations there could also be revenue generating opportunities.

So if you have a good data source or something that could be turned into an data source there might be some mileage in considering creating an API. You never know before long you might have your own API economy.