The Victorian government has begun a public catalogue of application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow software developers to more easily build third-party apps that pull information from its open datasets.
In simple terms, APIs facilitate automatic communications or connections between computer programs made by different people. They are typically made publicly available and act to allow the sharing of certain information, in certain ways, or the use of particular software features.
A lot of state governments have started to make them available as part of their open data offerings, but the idea is still only in its infancy.
“When APIs are made available, software developers can use standardised tools to get data from a system, modify it as required, and use it somewhere else,” explains the Victorian government’s web page where its API design principles can be found.
“APIs are often used to automate manual processes or to create new tools altogether. APIs may be internal to a government agency, shared with trusted partners or out to the public.”
Victoria’s digital-government experts advise their public service colleagues that while this won’t always be the best way to allow data integration, “an API-first approach” is the present strategy.
“This approach favours the use of APIs in most integration scenarios. We recommend including an API with every Victorian Government online service, where possible.”
The digital, design and innovation branch in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet is starting small with a few APIs on offer through a relatively new website that went up in April and is in a public beta-testing phase.
The APIs on offer allow developers to build programs that crawl through thousands of datasets in its general open data directory, or simply access a simple set of important calendar dates for the state, museum collections and the Victorian Heritage Database.
The Victorian department explains APIs are useful because they allow government agencies to:
- Share data: Providing information and services through web APIs supports interoperability and openness. Well-designed APIs make data freely available for use within agencies, between agencies, in the private sector and by citizens.
- Increase reach: Reach more users by allowing other agencies, partners and the private sector to integrate – and amplify – your agency’s data, transactions and content.
- Save time: Use automation to update data or content once and your API can automatically refresh in multiple locations on a website, mobile platforms and social media platforms.
- Save money: Allow third-party innovators to create and share new, useful products and services beyond the scope – or budget – of your agency.
- Speed up product development: Allowing granular and open access to content improves prototyping and access for collaboration.
- Build markets: Assist entrepreneurs to develop products and services with access to government resources.
- Empower citizens: Open access enables external developers to build their own versions of online government services.
Government APIs increasingly available
Governments across the nation are beginning to recognise the potential of APIs and New South Wales has a particularly sophisticated offering.
The idea has been championed for years by public-sector technologists like Pia Andrews, who has moved between different roles in the Commonwealth, New Zealand and NSW governments in recent years.
Her understanding of the potential for “government as an API” was specifically mentioned in a statement announcing her return to Australia last year as the NSW executive director of digital government. Essentially, it means that a lot of people and organisations outside government can create public value using the vast amounts of information governments possess to create useful apps without needing to bother anyone in government and without taxpayers spending any extra.
Andrews points out this kind of thinking moves away from discrete IT projects with a start and end-date and towards “digital public infrastructure” that is enduring and reusable, and can be built on and upgraded over time, in a blog post from last April.
The key, in her view, is to maximise the availability and usefulness of government data and other kinds of information, business rules and legislation as well as transactional systems across the economy through APIs.
“This is how we scale transformation across the public sector because agencies are naturally motivated to deliver what they need to cheaper, faster and better, so when there are genuinely useful reusable components, agencies will reuse them.
“Agencies are now more naturally motivated to take an API driven modular architecture which creates the bedrock for government as an API. Digital legislation (which is necessary for service delivery to be integrated across agency boundaries) would also create huge transformation in regulatory and compliance transformation, as well as for government automation and AI.”