Government Agencies Turn to IFTTT to Make APIs Accessible

The release of a government-focused terms of use (TOU) aims to enable government agencies to make APIs available as "channels" on the IFTTT platform.

IFTTT (which is rebranding its main service as IF) is an API aggregation service that lets users create simple workflows triggered by specific events. For example, users can enable a "recipe" so that whenever a user saves a Web article or blog post to the read-it-later app Pocket, the URL of the article is automatically saved to a Google Drive spreadsheet. Like any software-as-a-service product, IFTTT has terms of use covering things like privacy of a user’s account data and noncommercial clauses to prevent developers from using IFTTT as a feature within their apps without a partnership arrangement with IFTTT.

The Importance of Government-Specific Terms of Use for SaaS and API Providers

New terms of use means that U.S. government agencies can create their own channels that demonstrate to end users and developers what can be achieved by using government APIs and open data. The process is interesting for any API or SaaS provider that hopes to work with any level of government in future.

The main focus of the government terms of use appears to address national regulations for the storing of data by third parties. Creating terms of use specifically for government usage of social media and cloud services has become essential to addressing regulations governing security, privacy and records retention, and to match some specific agency regulatory frameworks. In the U.S., this process has been standardized for all tiers of government: federal, state and local. (A detailed explanation of the process has been published by the DigitalGov website.)

Agencies Using IFTTT to Dogfood Government APIs

Justin Herman, lead architect of the IFTTT ToU, works at the federal General Services Administration (GSA) on government social media strategies. He is hopeful that government agencies can make use of IFTTT channels to create internal efficiencies, in the same way that agencies should be dogfooding their external APIs for internal use. “The first step in trying in making an IFTTT channel useful is to show the business case for either improving public services or reducing the current costs of delivery," he says.

“For example, every single government program that uses social media can save money because we have records management laws that require us to archive all social media records for the general public," Herman says. "Before this IFTTT option, there were limited options for recalling and exporting social media accounts data. Now with IFTTT, we are easily able to set up a Google Calendar that auto-archives every single post as it is done.”

Herman says that this is a significant savings: Some agencies may have 20 suboffices around the country and dozens of subagencies, all with their own social media accounts.

Government Agencies Ask Developers What API Recipes They Want

With the TOU in place, agencies are now seeking the help of developers in understanding what APIs and workflows would be best set up as IFTTT channels.

“There have been government agencies looking at how to use APIs to better deliver public services for years now,” explains Herman. “In the GSA, we have senior API specialists who help other agencies. So there is a robust community across the federal government keenly interested in revolutionizing digital public services. Now, it is a matter of looking at what is the best use of this system.

“Right now, what we are looking at is the hundreds of things we could be doing with IFTTT, both for public services and for how we can use it internally.”

To help promote the use of IFTTT among government agencies, federal intrapreneurial GSA branch 18F has created If Gov Then That.

“This is a multistage process," says Herman. "Agencies are very interested in taking a look at any opportunity to find out what the developer community needs. That is going to trump anything.

“For this initial release, we are asking what are some ways that IFTTT will be most useful for people and really bring out the potential of this,” says Herman. He compares the possibility of using IFTTT channels as similar to the innovation leverage from using weather APIs: “Weather data is government data that is used for a myriad of services. That’s the model we want for services delivered through APIs. People could be using and benefiting from government data without thinking, ‘I am downloading a government app.’ ”

As with IFTTT’s main TOU, use of the service to power commercial software applications is discouraged. However, developers could use IFTTT to better map their proof of concept if considering adding a similar alert or automated feature to their products. Using IFTTT first may help developers better understand the end-user value of providing the feature before digging into the API directly to add the functionality of the API into their products.

The move has already led one of the U.S.’ leading developer advocates of open data, Waldo Jaquith, to tweet:

20 Ways Developers Could Use IFTTT Recipes to Trigger Alerts

For urban mobility and travel app developers:

  • When severe weather alerts are issued
  • When Transportation Security Administration lines at a given airport are longer than 20 minutes
  • When commuter bridge inspections are overdue
  • When a national park has been closed or when walking trails are temporarily closed

For apps targeting journalists, editors, media agencies and industry analysts:

  • When a new data source has been added to
  • When a response to a Freedom of Information Act request has been published
  • When a We the People petition has been started or has reached the threshold for requiring a government response
  • When new Bureau of Labor Statistics data on forecasts for particular professions are issued
  • If census data for a particular data set falls above or below a particular economic indicator threshold
  • If a particular lobbyist visits the White House
  • If a government agency has created a new social media account
  • When a service contracted by government has crossed a threshold for cost or time overrun

For food-related apps:

  • When a new farmers market is added
  • When a particular type of food or product has been recalled
  • If a restaurant inspection declares a venue unsanitary, removes it from a recommendations engine

For financial apps:

  • When a tax return has been accepted or a refund has been issued
  • When an FDIC-approved bank opens a new location

For medical apps:

  • When a hospital service has changed location or hours of operation
  • When a medication has been recalled
  • When a medical therapeutic device has been recalled or had usage warnings changed

Developers who want to see government APIs enabled on the IFTTT platform are encouraged to share their thoughts. “We want to know people’s feedback on it. What are the types of things you want to see and what do you need to see? What do developers need to make use of Government APIs on IFTTT?” Herman asks.

He says the best way for developers to provide feedback on what APIs they want to have turned into triggered workflows (or recipes) on IFTTT is to add their thoughts to the open thread on GitHub set up by If Gov Then That.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities.