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How APIs Are Central to One County’s E-Government Revitalization

Douglas County, Colo., is working to find better ways of sharing data both with the public and between government offices.

by / January/February 2017

In Douglas County, Colo., an effort is underway, led by the elected county treasurer and assessor, to find better ways of sharing data both with the public and between government offices.

Beyond the transparency and open data efforts that many government entities are undertaking, the county, which sits between Denver and Colorado Springs, is putting an emphasis on application programming interfaces (APIs) between previously siloed software. In fact, it may be a good example of what Government Technology Chief Content Officer Paul Taylor identified as “government as an API” in his December 2015 column.

“Governments regularly consume public APIs, including those for mapping and payments,” Taylor wrote. “They also provide private APIs to connect applications within the government ecosystem. Looking forward, government-provided public APIs play a key role in helping to complete the e-government experiment.”

John Thompson, Douglas County’s data services manager, said the county is looking at how to make its data more accessible and enable constituents to help the county build apps and software, and its IT leaders realized that APIs are a key building block. “One of the compelling reasons we decided to go with Socrata for an open data platform in the first place was because it had a role-level API for any piece of data we make available,” he explained. “We approached it not from a transparency standpoint, but more as an IT entity. We want to make data machine-readable and as widely available as possible.”

In terms of software procurement going forward, the API has surfaced as a top requirement, Thompson said. “We are looking at how we make government data available so a person can read it but also a machine can read it. Then it becomes more powerful,” he explained. “Once we had that as our guiding principle, we started looking around. Open data made sense for us. Obviously it isn’t going to work for everything we do in the county, but we still had that mindset.”

In working with its legacy systems, the county has had to reverse-engineer databases and build its own extract, transform and load processes to create a data store. “Moving forward we don’t want to go through the three layers of databases before we make data available,” Thompson said. “We want to ask the vendor to just design it into their product.”

Silos Within Silos

Lisa Frizell, county assessor, said it’s not unusual for somebody to contact her office but actually need to talk to County Treasurer Diane Holbert’s office or vice versa. “It feels wrong and like we are providing poor customer service when we bounce people around,” she said, “and that is just two offices. You can multiply that times 100, because we have the county offices and the municipalities within the county — they are their own silos and they have silos within their organizations.”

Constituents don’t know when they are crossing from unincorporated Douglas County into a municipality or into a water and sanitation district or a fire protection district. “Those invisible lines exist, and they impact constituents very heavily in their ability to get information,” she said. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to do this? If we can minimize how much they have to drill down to get the information they want, that is better for everybody.”

Frizell said that although the assessor’s office has always taken pride in making information readily available on its website, layering data from several sources holds more potential. “The real benefit is that you are not just looking at assessor information,” she said. “You can layer building permits on top of assessor information. You can layer demographic information on top of that.” Frizell referenced a project in Seattle that is combining demographic, real-estate sales and property valuation information to create affordability indexes so the city can be more strategic about where it invests in affordable housing.

Traffic and Construction Notification

Traffic and road construction have been identified as major complaints of Douglas County citizens. “We were presented with the problem of surfacing road construction news for the public in a way that makes it easy for them to get to and understand,” Thompson said.

The first step was looking at how the county traditionally gathered and made this data available. “We found it was put in a spreadsheet, and then people were making a map and posting online a PDF of the map,” he added. They automated that process to allow the individuals working on those projects to enter it with a mapping component built in and populate NearMeDC (a free online tool) and Socrata Open Data.

The county also entered into a two-way data-sharing partnership with the real-time navigation app Waze. It provides the fastest routes based on current driving conditions and data from users. It also provides Douglas County residents with details about current traffic impacts and construction projects.

“If we have a road closure, Waze will dynamically route users around that issue,” Thompson said, adding that Douglas County is building the infrastructure to capture Waze information for tactical use. The Waze reports often happen faster than a 911 call or a report to agencies. “We are incorporating them into our emergency operations center feed so that we can respond faster,” he said. “We are looking at how to make the data available in case we have a natural disaster, such as a forest fire. We can have this super-salient information in real time.”

By working to include data from the cities of Castle Rock, Parker and Lone Tree, the county now can make available a comprehensive set of data on current and upcoming construction. “We have this data set that is API-accessible,” Thompson said, “and South Metro Fire Rescue Department is looking to plug that data into its routing software to avoid sending a fire truck through a construction zone, because that takes extra time. Pre-emptively rerouting a truck during a fire incident could save time and save lives.”

Additionally the county and cities sometimes do construction work in adjoining neighborhoods. The county is working on a prototype of a visualization tool using the APIs to show the planned and current projects and the entry and exit points of all the neighborhoods. If a community is going to be disproportionately impacted by construction, projects can be rescheduled.

Holbert said efforts such as the one in Douglas County involve nurturing relationships with partners in the municipalities. She said it also requires leadership, and not just from IT. “We don’t want to be patting ourselves on the back. We recognize this is a journey. We need to continually look at how to make our products better and make ourselves more relevant to the citizens of Douglas County.”

“You hear the buzzword ‘smart city,’” Thompson said. “We see this as making that vision a reality. We are using data in a smart manner to do the things we need to do as a government, but in a way that is not disproportionately impacting citizens.”

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David Raths contributing writer
E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs