Elbert is also hopeful the tool will be useful for other government departments and will reduce government administrative costs. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy uses the EIA’s API for forecasting and visualizations, while the Congressional Research Service is one of the biggest data requesters that could possibly benefit from immediate access to the latest data and time series via the API and spreadsheets.
Also on the agenda are new EIA widgets powered by the API, and as these are created, the underlying source code will be made freely available. EIA has also started consuming its own APIs, which Elbert sees as being a cornerstone to ensuring high usability of the new data products.
External Developer User Experiences
External developers using EIA’s APIs are reportedly fairly happy with the current API road map from EIA but are facing similar problems, as is evident with the Excel tool, and have also seen some time lags with the API.
Matthew Brigida, associate professor of finance at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, has created an R wrapper for the EIA API and uses it regularly in his classwork with students, predominantly so they can write their energy economic analyses in a reproducible manner, without storing data locally but instead “pulling up-to-date data through the API.”
Brigida encounters the same issue with opening source code as EIA has:
The API is easy to use — and it supports both XML and JSON. The biggest hindrance is the requirement that the user has an API key from the EIA. The keys are free; however, since they must be kept somewhat secret, it makes it a bit of a hassle to post interactive analyses to the Web. You have to have the code source a private file.
He also notes that “the data sets accessible through the API are stale — they are sometimes a week behind the data posted on their website” but adds, “I understand the EIA is working on fixing this.”
Working in the Open
Adopting entrepreneurial approaches like releasing minimum viable products and working in the open are often counterintuitive to government departments.
Kristin Lyng, who has spearheaded the opening of weather data at MET Norway — now one of the world’s biggest providers of weather data — has talked about the culture of starting to open government data. This often starts with government stakeholders and bureaucrats being uncomfortable with criticism, getting defensive and “even more reluctant to continue on the open data journey.” Lyng advocated among her government peers that often the criticisms were valid and that the comments could actually help government create a better data supply “if they are heard as part of a dialogue with end users.”
Elbert’s management approach at EIA seems to follow a similar cultural attitude, one that API evangelist Kin Lane calls part of the API journey. Lane says that “while we may never get our strategy 100% perfect, we can communicate, and evolve along the way.”
Engaging with end users and developing products that can help communities, businesses and startups make use of APIs is still a fairly novel concept for many government departments. Seeing how the EIA accepts criticism, adds to its road map and continues in the open may give greater confidence to other government departments to follow their lead.