Data exchange

APIs grease the wheels for putting agency data to use

Agencies from the local to the federal level have for several years now been making some of their data sets available to the public as part of the open government movement. The idea is to allow developers to tap that data to build applications, from traffic-flow apps to weather observation programs.

But how does a device know what the app wants, and how to provide the resources the app needs to do to perform? That’s the job of an application programming interface (API).

The API interfaces the program or app with the underlying resource, whether that is hardware on a smart phone or a huge database server connected through the Internet. Essentially, it lets the different components in software communicate.

It’s like, if R2D2 were the app, the API would be that data port that it uses to connect with the computer on the Death Star. Actually, it would also be the form of the code signal passed through it, as well as the query language it uses to find out all the Empire’s secrets. Those pieces all make up the API in this highly geeky, increasingly out-of-control analogy.

Anyway, many public sector agencies that have been making data sets available are coming to the conclusion that they could serve innovation better by creating a publicly available API. That helps all sorts of folks make their own apps to access the data in different ways, and the best of the bunch will (ideally) bubble to the top.

The U.S. Census Bureau in July released its first public API for use with some of the 2010 census data. The bureau has set up a developer’s forum, and is hoping for good feedback for the next time.

The Energy Department also made more of its data sets available through APIs.

FedScoop has put together a good instructional video that explains how an API interacts with the other parts of the app/device system. At the end is an extensive list of organizations that have started using APIs.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.

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