Realizing Transparency Through Federal Government APIs

transparency_campBuilding on Barack Obama's push for a transformational process for the Federal Government, momentum is building in terms of how citizens view the government's role as a data steward and data provider. The numerous Federal agencies concentrated in Washington, D.C. and around the country maintain a massive amount of data that, as of today, is largely inaccessible either through lack of entry points or through lack of gateways for distribution. Consequently, how to provide the public with access to "the people's data" has emerged as an important topic amongst technologists and freedom of information advocates, especially now that the U.S. has a president who included transparency as a core element of his campaign Platform.

Earlier this week Newsweek International Edition released an article entitled "The People's Data" which gives an overview of how government should make data openly available and then let outside talent reimagine how it can be used online. The article covers several areas related to the opportunity and challenges that are present in making Federal data available. From the legal issues surrounding comment moderation on to the hackery of citizens who have taken the aggregation and dissemination of data into their own hands, the article provides some great thought-provoking insight into why having the Federal Government provide open APIs would be a great first step in realizing transparency.

One of the salient points in the article is the fact that APIs would encourage third parties, rather than the Federal Government, to provide multiple ways of accessing data. And as we have seen with many of the mashups listed on ProgrammableWeb, developers can pack a lot of creativity, value, and utility into their mashups.

According to Christopher Werth of Newsweek:

The idea is that government agencies should make public data openly available, and then get out of the way to let the best outside talent reimagine how it can be used online. It's something of a free-market approach to nosing around in the government's business. David Robinson, associate director of Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy, has argued for what he envisions as an "ecosystem" of open, easily accessible public data. The competitive advantage that savvy, civic-minded Web developers have over federal Webmasters would increase the opportunities for public engagement with the activities of government.

By coincidence, it is worth mentioning that TransparencyCamp took place this past weekend as well. The un-conference was held for open government advocates to share knowledge on how to use new technologies to make our government transparent and meaningfully accessible to the public. A review of some of the sessions held at TransparencyCamp reveals that Federal data and APIs were the topic of more than one conversation, including " API?! Okay, but How," "APIs and Mashups Made Easy," and " tech session REST/Atom/LOD." Follow the thread on Twitter for more.

It is refreshing to see that talk of open government and APIs is growing, and that citizen involvement through events such as TransparencyCamp and via organizations like the Sunlight Foundation are helping to stimulate (and bridge) the discussion on open data distribution. As we have reported in prior posts, the UK government seems to be ahead of the curve, with some of its data already available for public consumption and mashup development. We hope and expect to hear more on the issue as Obama's first term progresses, and we are eager to see additional APIs with the .gov domain suffix.

Be sure to read the next Government article: Opens 20 Years Worth of Campaign Finance Data