How Transparency, Innovation, Dogfooding And Passion Drive Government APIs

Without fail, on roughly the middle Wednesday of every month, the Wasington, DC API Users Group gets together for a meetup to discuss all matter of APIs. Of the many API meetups happening all over the world, this is the one that I try to never miss. To give you some idea of how great I think this meetup is, I literally stop working mid-day Wednesday at my home office in Boston, board a shuttle that lands in DC about an hour before the meetup's 6pm start time, and grab the 10pm shuttle back to Boston immediately after the meetup is over. 

This meetup used to be called the Government API Meetup. But it has become so popular with non-government people that its spiritual leader Gray Brooks had to change the name to the DC API Meetup. Brooks works at 18F, a spin-out of the GSA that shoulders the technical charter of the Obama administration's Open Government Initiative. The government's roughly 250 agencies and hundreds of API-interested government staffers look to Brooks and his fellow 18Fers as the unofficial best practice curators and consultants for federal agency API provisioning. It runs like an open source project whereby no agency is too new to the art of APIs to contribute a learning that gets remixed into the federal government's ever evolving set of tools and best practices.

Each meetup takes place at the headquarters of Chief (a digital branding agency with clients like Disney, Hyundai, and OnStar) and features four presenters, at least one of whom comes from one of the many federal agencies to bare their soul with a detailed if not colorful history of their API journey to date. These may be "G" people, but no meetup passes without the slippage of several F-bombs. It's a refreshingly informal gathering that never fails to remind me of how unique this community is. Nowhere else in the world have I found such a large group of people bound together by a common mandate (opening up myriad government data to programmatic access, and thusly innovation).

True to form, last night's meetup did not disappoint as the chief of the US Census Bureau's Web and Media Branch Alexandra Figueroa took to the stage to talk about the agency's API program. As any US citizen can imagine, the US Census Bureau hosts gi-normous volumes of census data on which innovation can thrive if only it could be unlocked through APIs. That sort of transparency is the very ethos of open government and what was especially heartwarming about Figueroa's presentation (as well as those who have come before her) is how passionately she takes her mission.

Figueroa and her contemporaries get paid to do their jobs. But they also honestly believe that it's their patriotic duty to ensure that US citizens have unbridled access to the data that rightfully belongs to them in the first place. Her approach is like a textbook application of API provisioning. In its never ending goal to provide frictionless access to census data, the Bureau is constantly factoring developer feedback into the design of its developer portal and APIs.

"When we release something, for example, an application that shows data, we know that it could be better" said Figueroa. "So we want users to tell us how to make it better. Tell us what you think and how to perfect it. Our developer's page is one of those examples. We released an API for developers and with the help of the GSA and 18F we did a focus group and asked it to tell us about the site. Is it good? How can we make it better? Based on the answers, we introduced new discovery tools, changed the site based on that feedback and now our APIs are better organized by topic."

In Figueroa's mind, there's always room for improvement and never enough feedback. Never, since I've started coming to these monthly meetups last year, have I met a government API person who brags about their APIs or their API portals. Humility is culturally ingrained in this group and the result is a level of sharing, camaraderie, and a frequent dose of self-deprecation that makes the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

Leaving no stone unturned, the Bureau is also a textbook dogfooding operation. Wherever the Bureau's data is revealed on its Web site or in its applications, that data is being presented through the consumption of its own APIs. Dogfooding is a classic approach to surfacing shortcomings in your own APIs. But too few organizations actually do it. In its never ending quest for perfection, the Census bureau apparently lives it.

APIs are even driving the agency to innovate at the application level. Figueroa spoke fondly of a mobile app called Census Pop Quiz that challenges players on a variety of Census trivia. To drive interest in the app and the wealth of data that the Census bureau keeps, the app is gamified with badges that it awards to users who demonstrate mastery of census statistics that range from typical to esoteric.  On top of its APIs, the Census Bureau has also built Dweller, an app for identifying which of the country's top 25 cities would be best to live in based on lifestyle preferences. 

During the Q&A portion of the meetup, Figueroa spoke of how the Census Bureau had to transform itself for a world in which it would be servicing developers as customers (the agency has already issued 6,000 API keys). "It required a huge culture change to bring analytics and the customer focus forward" said Figueroa. "Now, I wake up every morning thinking about my customers who are "The People."   

Transparency? Focus groups? Dogfooding? Constant iteration? Gamification of mobile apps? Evangelism at meet ups? Passion? Organizational transformation? If I went to Silicon Valley and asked someone to identify an organization that exudes those characteristics, the last thing that would come to their mind would be a federal government agency. But that's exactly what's happening all over Washington, DC as these API-folk are showing the world how APIs get done. 

David Berlind is the editor-in-chief of ProgrammableWeb.com. You can reach him at david.berlind@programmableweb.com. Connect to David on Twitter at @dberlind or on LinkedIn, put him in a Google+ circle, or friend him on Facebook.

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