VA launches platform for building APIs

The Department of Veterans Affairs has launched Lighthouse Lab, a platform to manage its move to an application programming interface-driven agency.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has launched Lighthouse Lab, a platform to accelerate its move to become an application programming interface-driven agency.

The beta version of the platform will give software developers access to datasets and tools for creating mobile and web applications that will help veterans better manage their care, services and benefits.

Lighthouse is part of the VA's larger vision for modernization that includes adopting more commercial off-the-shelf products and delivering a "digital experience in line with what Veterans are getting from the private sector, " VA Secretary David Shulkin said.

At the recent Health Information and Management Systems Society conference in Las Vegas, Shulkin introduced a health data "pledge" that has already been adopted by a roster of health systems including the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic. The Open API Pledge is designed to accelerate the adoption of the FHIR standard – short for Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources -- as a means to getting health data to work across different healthcare system and different technology platforms.

The FLIR API standard already got a federal boost when the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that Medicare claims data would be available via Blue Button 2.0 using the FHIR standard.

The more systems that take the "pledge," the more reach the FHIR standard will have. VA has leverage to push the API standard because it's the single largest health system in the U.S., and increasingly its patient population is being given the flexibility to seek private care.

Before VA can begin using patient data to power health applications, the governance and structure of the Lighthouse system must be worked out.

That's where Drew Myklegard, a senior advisor to VA's acting CIO Scott Blackburn, comes in. Myklegard is the product owner of Lighthouse, and he's working with partners across the veterans' agency in every department. Right now, VA is seeking information from industry and developers on how to structure and support Lighthouse's internal functions, such as governance, developer vetting, acquisition, DevOps and more.

"We're moving VA toward an API-first architecture," Myklegard told FCW. "We look at Lighthouse as a startup. We're asking ourselves, how would you construct a startup like this?"

Micropurchases will play a big role in the development of the Lighthouse ecosystem, Myklegard said. The federal micropurchase threshold is set to rise from $3,500 to $10,000 with the next update of the Federal Acquisition Regulation. That lift, Myklegard said, will make it easier to find developers to work on discrete tasks needed to build in security, structure and consistent architecture into the program.

Lighthouse is looking to attract contributions from a community of people with experience in engineering, development, design, product management, security usability and more.

"This pushes us more toward the gig economy," Myklegard said.

The governance process will take about three or four months, Myklegard said. Once it is up and running, Lighthouse will support access to 600 back-end systems across VA. Myklegard said the department plans to manage its developer community on a federated model.

Any developer that touches personally identifiable information and health data will be vetted for security risks and will necessarily be in close touch with VA. But there are public-facing datasets that can be accessed without compromising any PII or health data that can be used by developers without a security check.

VA has already pushed out some apps on its own that combine existing agency data. For example, the Access to Care app, a pet project of Shulkin's that was sped into production in just 30 days, pulls together appointment wait-time information and maps it to information on VA facilities and quality of care reports.

Some API uses won't necessarily look like VA data. For instance, a real estate site could add a layer of data on VA facility locations as a way of enhancing service to veterans. An education site could include a layer of data on schools and programs supported by VA's education benefits. Myklegard said he expects the early products generated via Lighthouse to be based around public-facing datasets that don't require any special security on the part of developers.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

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