The New Zealand government has launched an API portal to encourage businesses to integrate with government services. New Zealand has one of the more advanced government digital strategies in the world, and the initiative is a strong, early industry example of how governments can communicate the value of APIs to industry.
The launch highlights the emerging challenge for governments to ensure that their APIs are discoverable and usable by businesses and adds to the various models used by governments to enable API discoverability.
The New Zealand government website, Better APIs for Business, is part of a national strategy to make it easier for businesses to grow without government bureaucracy or other barriers slowing them down. It also aligns well with the government’s progressive open government agenda. The agenda includes a cloud-first governmentwide policy and the creation of two digital channels to enable New Zealand citizens to access government services securely online.
The Better APIs for Business portal — hosted by the NZ government’s Business, Innovation and Development Department — includes neat introductions to explain what APIs are and case studies that reference the U.S. and U.K. governments’ digital strategies. Local examples are also shared, including a New Zealand API for digital cultural materials, a case study on how APIs help manage transport borders across the country, and an overview of available APIs to access New Zealand’s geospatial data.
A Government API Marketplace
This week, one of the API team’s architects, Glen Thurston, has called for businesses to share their thoughts on how the government should build an API marketplace that can help businesses discover what APIs are available.
Thurston is more focused now on transactional APIs that not only forward data but also integrate with business so there is a flow back and forth of information in order to carry out a government service. To move the discussion of an API marketplace forward, Thurston asks businesses:
- What would you need to know about a transactional service or dataset to be able to tell if it’s of interest to you? This could be both from a technical or business opportunity perspective.
- In the absence of actual APIs, should we start by listing the type of services agencies currently deliver? This could give an indication of the types of services and data that agencies hold that could be useful for future API development.
Current Challenges in API Discoverability
Two challenges for government API discoverability facing the NZ initiative are the need to overcome departmental silos when communicating the value of APIs and the difficulties in creating a library database that is accessible as entries grow.
Overcoming Department Silos
In initial consultations hosted by the New Zealand government’s API Leadership Group, a priority request was for a single point of access that describes what APIs are available and which ones will be coming in the future. For businesses, APIs are seen as “the government,” not a particular government department, and they do not want to have to navigate through the inner workings of government to find the appropriate agency that may have an API they can use.
Weather APIs are a good example of how this useful data service could be hidden by a government’s API library design. As Justin Herman from the U.S. General Services Administration recently pointed out, most people are unaware that the weather data fueling many apps is from the U.S. government. It is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Should a business need to know that in order to find the API documentation? If you wanted to use this API for an emergency-services, first-response-type app, would you be more likely to search for the API on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website? If you were adding climate data to an agriculture solution, would you be more likely to look for the API on the Agriculture Department’s website?
A Searchable API Library
At present, the site lists only four API sources in its directory, although two of these are to much larger libraries of possible APIs. This is less comprehensive than ProgrammableWeb’s list of NZ government APIs. Missing from the Better APIs for Business website are some APIs that have pretty clear potential for integration by business, including New Zealand Tourism’s API; New Zealand Post’s multiple APIs, including the Post Locator API; and the Charities Commission API of registered tax-deductible charities.
Unfortunately, the data.govt.nz resource listed in the API directory leads business users to an open data library that demonstrates the difficulties businesses have in finding APIs.
At its heart, this is the problem Better APIs for Business hopes to solve.
Initial Industry Reaction
Geoff Leyland, director at planning consultancy agency Incremental, has been using New Zealand government open data for some time now and is impressed by the way government agencies have made data accessible. Key projects he has worked on include using government data to help large freighters identify transport options, for waste companies to calculate contract pricing and for local product cooperatives to optimize route planning.
For Leyland, the hope is that APIs will mean more formats for end users, and more formats means more accessibility. “I think that it’s important that a range of levels of access are freely available so that people can choose whether they want to get their hands dirty or, if they don’t, that there are good tools that get them quickly what they want,” he says.
To date, Leyland has primarily used bulk downloads of data rather than APIs but can see how he could “use an API to get incremental updates to the data, rather than just doing bulk downloads.”
He is optimistic that all government agencies will implement best practices in making APIs accessible, as he has seen firsthand the responsiveness of the Land Information’s (LINZ) approach to publishing open data: “All of my experience has been with data.linz.govt.nz, and really, it’s awesome and it keeps getting better. I’ve talked to LINZ about it, and I just said, 'Do it more.' They’ve made improvements, like having permanent identifiers for addresses (which I haven’t used yet). I guess what I really want is for more data sets to be open.”
Leyland is hopeful that the government’s focus on APIs will help spark new ideas about products and services he can offer his clients. “In the future, I actually expect to be offering APIs based on ‘useful’ views of bulk data," he says. "One of my current toys is a tool that sends alerts when the electricity price in a region crosses a user-set threshold. Currently, price data isn’t available in a particularly nice format, and then once you have it, you have to deal with the bulk data, so it’s a question of offering an API that provides a useful function.”
An Initiative for Other Governments to Watch
The move seeks to overcome one of the biggest challenges that has faced open data in recent years: Many governments felt burned after publishing open data that no one used. The API agenda goes beyond just opening up data sets to better focus on discoverability, business use cases and including APIs that provide programmatic access to government services (transactional APIs). As one of the forerunners in allocating resources to a business team to promote government APIs, the New Zealand government will be closely watched by other state and national governments around the world.