Government API and Mashup Summary

Author: Kevin Farnham  

Introduction

U.S. Postal ServiceThere are two primary classes of government APIs and mashups: those developed by governments themselves, as services provided for their citizens; and those developed independently by citizens and citizen organizations to provide information to others regarding government-related activities.

These classes can be further subdivided. For example, governments provide information that documents government activity, as well as information that assists and encourages individuals to take a more active role in government, and information on how businesses can obtain contracts for government work. Meanwhile, citizens create APIs that oversee government activity to ensure that government activity is visible to the public, and also create mashups that integrate various forms of government data with important related current events; many of these take the form of mapping mashup applications.

Government-provided APIs

European Patent OfficeThe European Patent Office's Open Patent Services API is an example of a government agency providing an API as a service to citizens and businesses. The well-documented API applies SOAP and WSDL, enabling searches for patent information and documents.

The GovTracker API is provided by the Rhode Island Secretary of State's eGovernment and IT Divison. This very large API provides basic information on elected and appointed officials, committees, boards, regulations, past and upcoming meetings, elections, etc. The RESTful API returns data as RSS 2.0 documents or raw XML.

The US Postal Service API is one of the more elaborate government APIs. The Postal Service provides APIs for address information, delivery information, rate calculation, printing shipping labels, and carrier pickup. Using the APIs, a business can create a complete mailing application customized to its own U.S. Postal Service shipping needs.

NOAA Weather ServiceThe NOAA Weather Service API provides current weather data and weather forecasts for the entire United States. The data is updated hourly, currently at 45 minutes after the hour. Using the NOAA API, any web site can provide its visitors with accurate local weather data and forecasts based on each visitor's location.

APIs created by Government watchdog groups

L.O.U.I.S.The web has provided significant opportunities for illuminating the workings of government for citizens. Such is the objective of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization founded in 2006. Among the foundation's offerings is LOUIS, the Library Of Unified Information Sources. LOUIS provides searchable access to Congressional, presidential, and GAO documents. The API accepts requests that specify filtering criteria, and returns a feed of matching documents in XML format.

The FedSpending.org API was created by OMB Watch, an organization whose stated mission is to "promote open government, accountability and citizen participation." The API includes methods for finding information about awarded contracts and information that assists businesses with applying for government contracts.

Follow the MoneyThe Follow the Money API, created by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, provides an API that enables querying for information about individual candidates, political action committees (PACs), ballot measures, and campaign contributors, with options for filtering and sorting the results.

Information about representatives

A second type of API created by citizens and citizen groups provides information about the people who represent citizens in local, state, and federal government. The following APIs are examples.

Sunlight LabsThe SunlightLabs API enables users to retrieve contact information for members of the United States Congress. Sunlight Labs is related to the Sunlight Foundation (mentioned above).

The TheyWorkForYou API provides methods for United Kingdom citizens to access information about their representatives in Parliament and the House of Lords, about committees, debates, statements, etc.

The Cicero API is a commercial API, developed by Avencia Incorporated, which specializes in developing geographic analysis and modeling applications. The API uses a SOAP interface to identify the representation districts for any United States address. The customers for Cicero are governments that would like to provide their citizens with ability to find out who their elected officials are.

With the Who Is My Representative API, users provide a United States zip code, and the API returns the congressman and senators for that region, along with their contact information, their home web page, and other relevant information. The API receives requests to its PHP scripts in a REST-style format, and returns data in XML or JSON formats.

Civic Footprint API is an experimental API that currently applies only to Cook County, Illinois. The API enables citizens to find their precinct, state representatives, and other officials based on their address. The API was developed by the non-profit Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT).

Citizen-developed mashups

Citizens have taken advantage of the availability of government-provided APIs and other APIS to create mashups that are particularly relevant with respect to current events. Many of the mashups provide annotated maps presenting government or political information. Here are some examples.

Are you a citizen of Second Life? If so, why not take advantage of the Congress Meets Second Life mashup to get to know your representatives in Congress? The mashup was created by Kiwini Oe of Clear Ink, using the Sunlight Labs government APIs.

Visualizing EarmarksFinding out which states pay the most Federal tax dollars per capita is relatively easy. But, have you ever wondered which states receive the most earmark dollars per capita, in return for those tax payments? If so, the Visualizing Earmarks mashup is exactly what you're looking for. The mashup applies data gathered using the Sunlight Labs API to graphically illustrate the per capita earmark dollars received by each U.S. state.

In each United States election, individual contests in particular states are paramount in determining the makeup of the next Congress and Senate. MSNBC created the Key Political Races Map mashup using Microsoft Virtual Earth to enable viewing the key national races in the 2006 election. We'd expect that an equivalent mashup will be available for the 2008 election soon.

Global mashups

Many of us follow the crises that occur in other countries around the world, in newspapers, on television, at news web sites, etc. The ongoing Myanmar (Burma) crisis is depicted in a new type of mashup, the Protests in Burma Map. This mashup, created by ALTSEAN.org, collates news of political protests in Myanmar and presents the data on a Google map.

Government-related mashups aren't limited to individual countries. Global organizations such as the World Bank are getting involved too. For example, if you're considering starting a global business, you might want to first check out the Ease of Doing Business Map. This mashup fuses the World Bank's global data with Google Maps to reveal the relative difficulty of doing business in different countries around the globe.

Conclusion

Government and citizen participation in online APIs and mashups is just starting, but there is now serious momentum in this space. It's going to be very interesting to watch what local, state, and federal governments, citizens, watchdog groups, and global organizations come up with in the near future. The promise of open government, and the potential for increased awareness by citizens of government activity, and participation in the institutions of governance, have never been greater than they are today -- thanks to the openness of the web, government and citizen provided APIs, and software tools that enable anyone to learn how to create a mashup that informs us about forms of government activity.

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Adam DuVander
Executive Editor, ProgrammableWeb. Author, Map Scripting 101. Lover, APIs.