GSA offers agencies a hand with APIs

Tools

The application programming interface guidance coming in November will focus more on strategies than rules and requirements, said a General Services Administration official Aug. 8 at the Federal Mobile Computing Summit in Washington, D.C.

"The material coming out in November is not going to be overly prescriptive. It's not going to reach for the impossible," said Gray Brooks, API strategist at the GSA's digital services innovation center. "You're going to see a lot of pragmatism."

The information will encourage agencies to take the next step, no matter what stage they're on, he added.

By Aug. 24, agencies are required to identify at least two existing major customer-facing services that contain high-value data or content to be made available as an API, in accordance with the White House's digital government strategy.

"We're working to make releasing an API really, truly easy," said Brooks.

The digital services innovation center is reviewing a light-weight, open source tool that would allow agencies to convert any spreadsheet into XML and JSON APIs to be hosted on their websites, said Brooks. They're also hosting office hours and webinars to help agencies transition to APIs.

But before agencies begin transitioning to APIs they must prioritize their data sets, said Stephen Buckner, director of the center for new media and promotions at the Census Bureau.

"Analytics are at the heart of it. You've got to have the research behind it," said Buckner.

Census determined their first two, high-value data sets by analyzing search data on census.gov and search data from Google and Bing.

"You see that a lot of the top topical searches on the search engines are very closely related to some of the top searches we have on the Census Bureau site. So we sort of let that be a guiding principle," said Buckner.

While Brooks agreed that analytics are critical, sometimes it's also okay to go for the quick win.

"I think there is an intersection of consumer need and popularity, and also getting that first and second out there, because the third is a lot easier than the second," said Brooks.

"Because of the way these systems are designed sometimes you can find quick wins and ones that just expose the data as is fairly readily," he added.

Other times an API requirement can be quickly inserted into contract language, he said.

"If we have a system that's just beginning to be contracted or beginning to be developed right now, then we can insert language in the statement of work," said Brooks. "Boom, that's the move to digital."

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