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Government APIs - Do more with less

By Alan Glickenhouse posted Thu November 20, 2014 03:13 PM

reporterReporter: “Candidate, Can you tell me why you are a better choice than your opponent?”


Politician: “If elected I will accomplish more while spending less!”


Reporter: “Can you be specific? How will you accomplish this?”


Politician: “I will move our government into the API Economy. We will first use APIs within the government to create Mobile Apps that benefit our citizens. We will do this Politicianefficiently since the use of APIs will limit the impact of new Apps on our existing systems. Next we will share information between agencies using APIs rather than prior time consuming costly efforts. And finally, we will make information available from government agencies for use by public developers who have a right to access this data. Of course we will ensure appropriate data security and privacy.”


Reporter: “No further questions.”


Yes, I know it sounds a little unbelievable. Not the part about the APIs, but that a politician actually directly answered a question.


Let’s take a look at APIs that might be put in place by the government or using government data. Once again I’ll use the structure I introduced a few weeks ago (here).   Government is a broad topic with federal, state, and local agencies and each country implementing things differently for their citizens. So, this is not intended to be comprehensive. I’ll jump around using examples at all levels and from several agencies to generate potential ideas for APIs at various levels.


Mobile App Development – What are the common use cases for Government APIs used in Mobile App development?

  • Many APIs can be provided to supply data that is intended to be publicly accessible. Examples might include food safety information from the USDA, health insurance marketplace options, security alerts from DHS.license

  • Custom APIs that deal with your situation require additional security.       Examples might include a license status check from the DMV or tax return status from the IRS.

  • Mobile advantages – APIs that take advantage of the mobile phone might include an agency locator API to find agency offices nearest to the user, the camera can be used as part of reporting an issue, and the GPS can be used to call for emergency services to help identify the location of the caller.


What APIs are available today in the Government? Here are just a few samples of public APIs:

  • Cicero - match any address to its correct legislative districts. Available legislative districts include local council districts in more than 100 cities and state and national districts in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia. Also returns maps of each district and information about each elected official. Can also provide non-legislative district matching for census data, counties, school districts, watersheds and police districts.

  • National Terrorism Advisory API - Able to deliver alerts. Alerts contain structured data fields such as summary and details, location or region, duration, how to help, etc.

  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Complaint DB API - Allows applications to retrieve metadata about the dataset and views, query for views matching specified search criteria, or retrieve specific rows of data from the dataset and views.

  • National Crime Victimization Survey API - Collects detailed information about people victimized by certain types of crime. The data describes the frequency, characteristics, and consequences of criminal victimization in the United States.

Besides creating Mobile Apps, there are many other areas where APIs can provide value for Government agencies.

NRCC Irene PreparationsPartnering – Emergency situations handled by agencies such as FEMA need to coordinate with other agencies for housing, emergency services, food supplies, etc. Different types of emergencies need different types of support and the ability to put together solutions quickly and integrate with local private sector suppliers quickly can benefit from an API approach. IBM’s initiative on Smarter Cities outlines many other areas where agencies need to work together, including infrastructure planning and public safety, social programs and health services, etc.


Public APIs – Private sector developers can access government APIs to provide value to citizens and potentially earn some revenue. Examples include a business review job-seeker-buttonApp that includes social media APIs with APIs from the Department of Consumer Affairs regarding business complaints. A job finder App might match candidates with open positions listed by the Department of Labor.


Devices – Traffic management can benefit from devices that report on the flow of traffic. Traffic cameras that catch infractions can also use APIs to integrate to the Criminal justice department. The Department of Energy and water supply agencies can use devices to monitor the electric grid, oil pipelines, water supply, etc. and use APIs to capture data and act on abnormal situations.

smart-grid Data Assets – Building on the traffic example, businesses may want to access traffic data to find opportunities for marketing (e.g. to people stuck in traffic). Infrastructure planning and zoning are also potential consumers of this data. Population and census data can be made available via APIs for outside developers to access and use in their Apps in creative ways.

Of course care must be given to protecting privacy and securing the APIs to ensure only appropriate data is made available to the App and consumer. See Andy Thurai’s post on this topic for more information.

Connect with me through comments here or via twitter @Arglick to continue the discussion.  You can also read my earlier blogs.

1 comment



Sun November 15, 2015 11:37 AM

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[…] keep the residents and businesses that are already there. As we have previously discussed in “Government APIs – Do more with less”, resources and budgets are tight. So, cities need to use new techniques to provide a high […]