18F Releases New Tools to Facilitate API Enablement

Federal government agency 18F, which operates as an "intrapreneurial" lab within government to encourage rapid adoption of new tech tools and strategies, has released a further series of resources and tools to facilitate API-enablement of government services. While 18F is committed to helping government agencies rapidly prototype and implement a new generation of tech tools, the resources it is releasing are useful for any business moving toward an API strategy.


18F, a department of the U.S. General Services Administration, is a unique experiment within government, but one that gives a tangible example of what “open government” advocates around the world aspire to create.

APIs = Open Government

According to a new report from the European Public Sector Information platform, the European Commission, OECD, the U.N., the World Bank and the Open Government Partnership are "specifically addressing" a new paradigm of open government. The European Commission says:

... opening up and sharing assets — making data, services and decisions open — enables collaboration and increases bottom-up, participative forms of service design, production and delivery. The kind of public sector organization that is at the heart of this transformation is open government, based on the principles of collaboration, transparency and participation and functioning within an open governance Framework.

In the U.S., frustration hit a boiling point earlier this year when Tim O’Reilly published a series of articles that helped explain why the debacles of the federal government shutdown and the launch of HealthCare.gov both demonstrated the need to rethink the fundamentals of how government does business.

The Obama administration and state governments across the country have articulated the following policy goals:

  • Opening data in machine-readable formats;
  • Encouraging the development of new businesses and products using open data as a raw material;
  • Leveraging private-public partnerships to solve energy, climate and population challenges; and
  • Re-engaging civic and business sectors through technology to renew trust and participation in democratic and community-building processes.

As these policy goals have begun to be implemented, it has become clear that the current ways of doing things are poorly suited to managing the complex interplay of stakeholders in a way that can ensure that everyone is able to participate while still rapidly developing potentially workable solutions. Meanwhile in the private sector, established, international and often monolithic enterprises are facing similar challenges in learning how to reconfigure their organizations into composable, data-driven units.

18F, located as it is in the government agency whose job it is to support other government agencies to do their jobs efficiently, is a product of our time and gives a physical manifestation of the open government credo that is necessary if real action is to occur to achieve the aforementioned policy goals. Employing a lean startup culture, 18F aims to rapidly deploy new tools that government agencies can test and scale up quickly. The model hopes to overcome the hurdles of death-by-bureaucratic-committee and to expose (or identify) where the real political obstacles that end up blocking any action exist.

So far, 18F is still very much building out the infrastructure and core toolset it thinks is needed to help government agencies. And these tools are all based on using APIs to deliver government services.

“Federal agencies across government are Scaling out their API programs and integrating these efforts into the way they achieve their mission,” says Gray Brooks, API strategist at 18F. “18F works with a number of agencies to provide them with a wide range of support and collaboration. Some of these efforts are already visible with others still in progress.”

The tools and resources updated and made available in the last few weeks can be used by any level of government — national, state or local — or by enterprises looking to move toward an API strategy.

4 API Tools for Government and Business

Here is a rundown of four of the latest tools released by 18F:

An open source policy

18F has announced a central policy of being open source-first when it creates new tools and resources. Raphael Majma and Eric Mill explain some of the benefits of taking an open source approach. It is a commitment that is also being adopted by the most forward-thinking industry and startup entrepreneurs, who realize that to gain traction and build buy-in, it is essential to allow their end users to collaborate in the development of tools, and to build trust via knowing there will be access to reusable, secure products. In the private sector, Tesla has open sourced its car models in order to help accelerate the electric vehicle industry; AmigoCloud has committed to contributing to various GIS open source projects; and OAuth.io provides an open source version of its SaaS product. All know that to do so actually enables faster market growth and uptake. 18F has promised to release in the near future a contributor’s guide that spells out open source reuse principles and guidelines for sharing code.

A ‘vanilla’ API developer hub

As a natural extension to the All-the-X Resource Library 18F is building on GitHub, 18F’s Brooks has collated this material as a set of developer hub templates. These can be used by any government agency or private company to create an instant developer hub. Already the Regulations.gov team has indicated it will use the templates as it rolls out its API strategy.

An API template strategy

Within the All-the-X resources, 18F has created a policy template that can help government agencies manage their new API strategies. This includes space to input an agency’s policy goals, a suggested timeline and additional resources, including guidelines on things like ensuring API discoverability.

It is easy to see how businesses could use these resources as well. For example, a recent article by Travis Spencer on Nordic APIs provided some templates for how an enterprise could harness stakeholder relationships across business departments in order to create a company-wide API strategy. Using the resources from 18F could make such discussions more tangible and less daunting for many businesses that have the goodwill to get started.

Model API terms of service

While the API terms of service were published by 18F in April, they are worth a quick mention again, for two reasons.

First, following the Oracle v. Google copyright decision, it is timely that many new API providers reconsider how they allow end users to consume their APIs, perhaps giving greater clarity around what portions are reusable. This can help developers have confidence in integrating the API into their applications and products without fear of copyright infringement. Under the model terms of service proposed by 18F, the agency would waive all rights under international copyright law, giving clarity to developers that they can build business products and services using the APIs and speeding up market innovation. At APIcon SF, hosted by ProgrammableWeb in May, lawyer Annette Hurst from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe found that “of every single API terms of use I looked at on ProgrammableWeb’s API directory, each of them says they are copyrightable.” With fear of further litigation after the Oracle-Google case, this could negatively impact a new API provider’s ability to build a developer ecosystem.

Second, the recent OKFestival open data conference event hosted by the Open Knowledge Foundation in Berlin in July found that many governments are releasing open data (by API or not) without clear terms of service around how developers may use the open data. Open data advocates from a number of countries noted that in several cases, data was available (sometimes even in machine-readable format), but no licensing provisions were documented, making it difficult for developers to confidently use the data in commercial and public projects without fear of retribution.

Brooks indicates there has been a strong link between the most recent open source policy release and the previous terms of reference models. “There's been significant interest in 18F's recent open source policy, which helps inform our licensing material,” he says. “We've already discussed with agencies how to reuse it. Specific to the model terms of service, a great example in action is the FDA's recent API release.”

Using the 18F model API terms of service can help both businesses and government agencies avoid reinventing the wheel and build trust with a developer community around their API releases.

Encouraging All Government Agencies to Change Business as Usual

It is still far too early to determine whether 18F will be successful in its ambitious mission of changing how government agencies do business.

Brooks confirms that 18F’s discussions across government are changing the way agencies approach service delivery:

18F is working with a number of partner agencies to develop substantial projects, and in each case, we adopt an API-first model that ensures we build great web services for the use of the project and for third-party adoption.

On a wider level, though, API producers from dozens of agencies regularly connect — asking for help, sharing resources, and encouraging each other's efforts. 18F heartily joins that collaboration.

To date, the only documented example of an agency using the tools created by 18F is 18F’s own parent agency, the General Services Administration. According to Mohana Ravindranath of The Washington Post, the GSA was able to use 18F’s FBOpen API to create a procurement information search feature for the agency’s mobile website in just under half an hour, rather than “weeks or months.”

A Glimpse Into the Future

Dave Caraway from 18F is hopeful that this sort of data usage is just the beginning of the sort of tools 18F will help create. While again focusing on a product for his own agency, in a Google Groups discussion, Caraway revealed that 18F is working on turning this data source into a full-fledged workflow type of product:

Users interact with SBIR-EZ [the Small Business Innovation Research Program] to discover interesting opportunities, save topics for later, start and walk through proposal creation for a topic (particular to the sponsoring agency) and submit the proposal. We fact-check against authoritative systems along the way to reduce traveled risk.

It's similar to systems you use each year to file taxes or manage your budget, guiding you through the process each step and having dashboards and such, except it's all API driven so that the same system can power other web and mobile applications. API driven means we eat our own dog food — we use client-side MVC that interact through the same APIs.

A public mockup of what the service will look like has been released, along with early API specifications, again demonstrating the open source model 18F advocates.

Thanks to 18F, the tools are being made available to help government agencies move toward a more collaborative and transparent model. Now it will be crucial to watch — and advocate — as these tools are used by various government agencies (and even city governments) to transform traditional ways governments maintain power toward a more collaborative, transparent model. Businesses also have an ideal set of tools to use to speed up their own Digital Transformation, thanks to the API templates provided by 18F.

A separate article on ProgrammableWeb also documents a set of API standards 18F advocates. All images sourced from the 18F website and GitHub repository.

Be sure to read the next Government article: MuniRent Uses APIs to Create Airbnb-Type Platform for City Machinery