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APIs: 5 Government Success Stories

The best application programming interfaces are those that operate in the background without a user’s knowledge, says one expert.

Last April, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel sent out a tweet that foretold a significant shift in federal IT policy. The White House’s new strategy for digital government outlines a number of policy priorities intended to maximize technology efficiencies for federal agencies. Government technical staff noted the priority VanRoekel, and the strategy, placed on APIs. The tweet, which included the term API in quotes, also included the telling hashtag #yesitisthesecretsauce.

The strategy intended to guide federal government IT calls upon agencies to be “information-centric” and make as much useful information as possible available in a public way. Open data, content and Web APIs are referred to as the new default for information. Agencies are also asked to work toward making existing data open in this same way, with priority placed on the most valuable data.

Richard Fong, a consultant for government communications provider GovDelivery, revealed in a webinar Thursday, Sept. 13, that many federal agencies have made significant strides in their constituent engagement efforts using APIs.

An API, which stands for application programming interface, is a tool that enables applications to communicate with each other. Developers create APIs to give people simple access to all kinds of data in the most user-friendly way. The best APIs, according to Fong, are those that operate in the background without a user’s knowledge, effectively extending the reach of the platform.

“Success is when the users of the API don’t even know it’s there — it’s that transparent,” he said.

One of the most successful examples of APIs is Twitter, where more than half of its 500 million users access the site using outside tools such as TweetDeck and HootSuite, which are intended to simplify and customize the user experience. Twitter’s widespread availability via apps on mobile devices, analysts say, is another mark of a successful API.

Many government agencies are jumping on the API bandwagon, using them to link citizens with data sets from their agency in useful ways. Effective APIs, said Fong, allow the public sector to effectively engage citizens and extend the reach of their communications.

1. The U.S. Census Bureau recently released its first application, giving subscribers access to information on 13 different U.S. economic indicators, including home sales, construction spending and retail sales.

2. The IRS2Go mobile app logged 19,000 new subscribers this past tax season. Subscribers can check on refund status and access tax tips and other information from the IRS.

3. The National Weather Service also uses a subscriber API to automate tsunami warning messages and provide near real-time alerts, with potentially life-saving implications, via email and text.

4. Fullerton, Calif., uses a subscriber API in conjunction with Bing Maps and internal databases to generate neighborhood-specific crime alerts for its citizens.

5. Michigan's official travel website, Pure Michigan, used an API to add email subscription options for its previously hard copy-only mailings.

GovDelivery works with more than 550 government organizations in the United States and Great Britain. The company sends 1 billion messages to subscribers on behalf of public-sector agencies every quarter.