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What's an API and Why Do You Need One?

More governments are using an application programing interface to share data internally and with citizens.

The need to efficiently share vast amounts of data across various departments and with citizens is an issue that faces most government officials today.

A key tool to tackling this challenge is the Application Programming Interface (API), which at its most basic acts as a door or window into a software program, allowing other programs to interact with it without the need for a developer to share its entire code.


“For example, an API would allow a mobile app, set top box or other connected device in a home to communicate with a service,” said Greg Brail, chief architect with Apigee. “The company exposes an API that tells a programmer how they will interact with the service. The API could be open to customers or just people inside their own company.”

While APIs are not new, Brail says a big change in how they are used started with the release of the iPhone and then the apps that followed for Apple and Android mobile devices. The development of apps for mobile devices meant that organizations needed to allow users to access information through apps and not just through the Internet.

Within the public sector, APIs are used to allow agencies to easily share information and also lets the public interact with government as well.

Infographic created by SmartFile
“APIs are important for a number of reasons,” said Mark Headd, former chief data officer for the city of Philadelphia. "They allow a specific audience to use data more quickly, easily and efficiently when they are looking to do something specific with the information.”

APIs have been used for years in the private sector, but governments at all levels are now playing catch-up to implement the technology across a number of platforms.

At the federal level, most notably within the Department of Defense, officials have spent a great deal of resources to move into the network-centric world, but are now working to develop a plan to effectively interconnect all the data available, said Robert Lentz, president of Cyber Security Strategies and an advisory board member with Apigee. 

But within the defense department, there are natural concerns about security and the possibility that sensitive information could be accessed by the wrong people. “From a security standpoint there is not a full understanding of the implications of using API,” Lentz said. “There is a need to have a powerfully designed API to allow for protection of sensitive information.”

Brail said security provisions or limits can be built into an API to control data access.

“The [API] would have to have some type of credential that would give users permission to access certain types of information,” he said. “You can also have an audit trail in the API that would make it possible to see who accessed the data and when.”

While government officials have security concerns with the use of APIs, as the technology continues to evolve, the need for municipalities to allow residents to interact with local officials continues to grow. To do so, APIs will play a significant role.

“If we can allow people to build new apps to report things like potholes from their smart phone, we can easily get photos that are geo coded,” explained Headd, who became technical evangelist for Accela Inc. earlier this year. “The mobile device knows where you are and should allow for governments to retrieve better information and perhaps better prioritize where the severe problems are.”

As the public sector works to catch up to its private sector compatriots in the use of APIs, some government officials have reached out to high profile companies including Amazon, Federal Express and Walmart to discuss each company’s transformation into the information age.

Lentz said these companies provided insight in terms of how each used APIs to respond quickly to changing needs in their business and understand the needs of users.

“Similar to the Pentagon, Walmart runs a worldwide operation and needs to have 24/7 access to surge as needed,” Lentz explained. “Having an intelligent API in place would allow (Pentagon officials) to respond to surge needs more effectively.”

One of the higher profile uses of API in government today is the Open311 standard now live in approximately 40 cities across the U.S. The free Open311 Web API provides a standard method for conducted location-based, collaborative issue tracking. It's used in conjunction with existing 311 service request systems to expand the capabilities of those systems, according to

“The API standard used is one that any city can adopt,” Headd said.

The development process for the 311 API, while time consuming, was unique in that cities of various sizes provide input regarding their needs, he added. “When developing an API, it’s not common to get input from a broad range of cities that range in size from Chicago to Bloomington, Ind."

For more than 20 years, Greg Sleter has worked as a professional journalist holding positions in several editorial leadership roles on the print and digital sides of the business. He most recently was a Regional Editor with AOL’s Prior to his time at Patch, he spent a decade with ICD Publications in New York serving in lead editorial roles on HomeWorld Business and Hotel Business Design. Sleter also has expertise in digital journalism, social media, public relations and marketing.