data silos (Aleutie/


How an API strategy can help agencies connect data silos

In 1988 Phil Ensor of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company first coined the term "information silo." As the story goes, Ensor, who worked in organizational development, got the idea while driving back to his childhood home in rural Illinois and seeing the grain silos that dotted the landscape.

Information silos have become a part of business, but they play an outsized role in the federal government. The silos developed slowly because of an over-reliance on legacy systems and IT leaders who wanted personal control over their data.

However, the data explosion in the last 10 years and the corresponding growth in systems that require access to data across the enterprise, mean the siloed approach no longer makes sense for government. Federal leaders want to break down these barriers so they can use the myriad of systems available to them, but they have struggled to find cost-effective and efficient methods.

Fortunately, this problem can be fixed with application programming interfaces, better known as APIs, which can break down technology silos and driving agility within government.

APIs: The key to unlocking government data silos

Despite proposed increases to federal IT budgets, agency IT teams must find ways to do more with less. By turning to an API-led approach, they can connect once stovepiped systems together.

APIs can help agencies link systems that previously did not, or could not, speak to one another in a cost effective, efficient and secure way. They do so by exposing services' underlying services and data residing in a manner that can be easily consumed by other applications or end-users without compromising integrity. They are a vast improvement over current time-consuming and expensive connectivity methods.

APIs can reduce the costs of maintaining legacy technology because they reduce agencies' need to pay for point-to-point connections each time they want to extract data from siloed systems. By taking an API-led approach to unlocking monolithic legacy systems, agencies can accelerate IT project delivery, enabling them to deliver on their missions faster.

The power of breaking data silos

Government agencies house an enormous amount of information. By securely unlocking this data with APIs, they can better fulfill their missions and help improve citizens' lives.

Innovative governments in Estonia, Finland and the state of New South Wales in Australia are demonstrating how connectivity platforms can make governments a one-stop shop for all citizen needs -- from filing for a birth certificate to registering for a driver’s license or voting ballot.

Estonia, for example, created X-Road, a shared environment for exchanging data between agency systems so that all government services are effectively available in one spot. The system is so seamless that citizens do not even need to carry their driver’s licenses and newborns are registered for healthcare insurance at birth. Estonia used APIs to create an application network that the World Bank conservatively estimated that in 2014 saved the country a total of 2.8 million working hours, or 3,225 years of time.

Similar application networks have started to emerge across pockets of the U.S. government.  The Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Veterans Affairs have started implementing APIs as a way to improve upon their missions. The FCC, as part of its modernization initiative, created a public API for citizens to access broadband maps, while the VA is using APIs to improve veteran care.

Think of the future for a minute; government only continues to grow. Adding more data silos will only make it more difficult  for agencies to work with different data streams. By taking an API-led approach now, agencies can break down today's  silos and stop new ones from being built.

The already-successful programs show how the citizen experience can be improved and the pace of government increased if systems were connected with composability and reusability in mind.

About the Author

Chris Aherne is regional vice president for federal at MuleSoft.

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