FCC to Developers: Push Us Forward

Justin Houk
Sep. 15 2010, 08:00AM EDT

The United States Federal Communications Commission is calling on web developers to help push the agency forward. The FCC Chairman spoke at the O'Reilly Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington D.C., as the organization announced four new RESTful APIs and a new website aimed at fostering a developer community around FCC data and services. It’s a first step that hinges on how the FCC can incorporate input from developers and create self-sustaining value.

The APIs and the developer site are a part of the FCC's Data Innovation Initiative and are also part of an effort to run a government web platform more like a private sector company. "As we think about FCC.com re-imagined, one of the things that I harken back to is really kind of thinking of a dot gov like a dot com. ...where we equate citizens as both our customer and shareholder," said FCC Managing Director Steven VanRoekal, who also spoke at the conference. The FCC hopes to create value for the public by letting developers create mashups and offer new ideas. He asks developers to "Push us, collaborate with us, jolt us out of the government web 1.0 norm and really help us advance this ball forward."

fcc developer pages

New FCC APIs

The new APIs are all RESTful in nature and can be called in a number of ways.  Each API relates to an FCC goal or mission showing that some strategic thought was put into their design.  The Census Block Search and Consumer Broadband Speed Test API's incorporate location search and could be integrated into mobile applications. All of the APIs return data structured as json, jsonp, or xml.  The amount of data items returned is somewhat basic relative to what the FCC probably has at it's disposal but is a start.

The new FCC APIs Are:

  • FCC License View returns a list of currently known licensee names associated with a common name and license status information.  This API helps the public understand who actually owns licenses and simplifies status terminology by rolling it into broad categories.
  • FCC Registraion Number (FRN) Conversion can list all broadband providers for one or more states or search by a providers FRN number.  The FRN number is important because it unifies searches where parent names and subsidiaries vary from state to state.
  • Census Block Search API is a location based search that geocodes latitude and longitude to a 15 character US Census Block Number.  As of now this API doesn't seem that useful because there are no other government APIs that one can call to return census data.   Census geography is embedded in many federal datasets, making this API important as more agencies create APIs.
  • Consumer Broadband Speed Test returns the Consumer Broadband speed test statistics for a US County based on latitude and longitude.  This API augments the consumer broadband speed test by reporting nearby averages and providing context for individual test results.

Bulk Data vs API

By releasing data APIs alongside bulk access to the same data the FCC is taking a play from the playbook of private sector data companies like InfoChimps.  The new services don't replace downloadable versions of the data, allowing developers to pick the solution that works best for them. The data can be re-hosted completely or used in realtime from the APIs with little overall development time.   Developers are already suggesting that the FCC release the source code for the APIs on SourceForge to use in their own bulk processing.

FCC Efforts to Build Community

The FCC seems to understand that the success of it's APIs are tied to creating a healthy community of developers.  It released fcc.gov/developer community pages on its website at the same time as the APIs. On the developer pages you can find links to API documentation and examples of code and returned values. You can sign up using a zip code and e-mail address but it's not totally clear what the advantage is to signing up. There are also links to the FCC SourceForge code repository, bulk data downloads, and social media channels.

connect with the FCC

One thing that seems to be missing is a link to a more open and less moderated discussion place. There are questions and answers that look like an ideascale implementation. Ideascale is certainly one way of getting input from developers, however, most thriving developer communities tend to congregate around a lightly moderated google group or forum.  Private sector companies often have staff members support unofficial groups because the input is invaluable.

Success Depends on Developers

There are many positive signs in the way that the FCC has created these APIs and tried to engage developers. The effort seems to be a departure from the "build it and they will come" mentality  that some government efforts have suffered from. The real test will be the ability of the FCC to be agile and incorporate developer input. A few days after the FCC made all of it's big announcements it posted a blog post from the Arkansas State GIS Program Manager Learon Dalby that acknowledged as much:

The challenge- finding the niche and sustaining the system. It is critical that FCC quickly determine what API’s developers are finding useful and which ones need additional work. In other words; the success of www.FCC.gov/developer will hinge on the FCC’s ability to work with the developer community not just provide another way to access information. After all, isn’t bi-directional communication what Gov 2.0 is all about?

It will be interesting to  watch the FCC interact with the community it hopes to foster around it's APIs in the coming weeks and months. What do you think it will take for the FCC to be successful at building a developer community and promoting it's APIs and bulk data downloads?  Please let us know in the comments.

Justin Houk

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The tweet stream coming out of the National States Geographic Information Council Conference has had a few related nuggets of information.

The FCC's Mike Bryne demoed something called issuemap (http://issuemap.org) that's a public facing mapping tool created in partnership with FortiusOne. It will be interesting to see if this connects with any of these API's at some point. via @SeanGorman

The Census Bureau is working on web services for their data as well. A census data API could eventually tie into the census block location API released by the FCC. via @druidsmith

Follow the NSGIC conference yourself using the #nsgic hash on twitter