U.S. Energy Information Agency Enhances APIs Accessiblility

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has partnered with the U.S. Federal Reserve to make up-to-date energy and economics data automatically available in spreadsheets via their APIs.

This week, the federal agency — which is responsible for independent energy information such as energy production, stocks, demand, imports, exports, and prices data — released a data add-on tool for Microsoft Excel that uses macros to automatically channel live data from EIA’s APIs into analytics spreadsheets.

“Analysts live in Excel, so it was a way to make the API useful to them,” Mark Elbert, Director, Office of Web Management at the EIA told ProgrammableWeb.

“It doesn’t take much to build a use case for providing this type of tool, where analysts can access the most recent data for performing periodic analyses of energy and economic data,” Elbert says. He explains this is the nuts and bolts work of many analysts, and embedding the API in a tool was a way to make it more accessible to a wider audience. “In fact, our administrator used to do as much when he worked for a leading international bank.”

The add-on allows researchers and analysts to browse categories, search for keywords, and download specific time-series and current energy data from the Energy Information Administration’s API as well as financial data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ Economic Data API. This data is imported directly into the spreadsheet, which is then maintained in real-time as new data is made available.

For now, the tool is only available as a Microsoft Excel add-on, and is only available for Windows PC users. “There are two ways you can install the add-on: You can run it as a session of Excel. That means you need to install and run it each time you open Excel. Or you can add it as an add-on, so you can permanently run it in Excel as a macro.”

How APIs are Facilitating a Culture of Innovation Within Government

The release of the tool is clearly marked as beta, and a feedback tab is provided so that users can share their experiences. While feedback comments are moderated, the idea is to encourage development in the open. Elbert confirms the agency wants to be frank about any bugs identified in the tool.

The idea of offering a beta tool like this symbolizes a new entrepreneurial culture that is evident in government agencies. As APIs drive new innovation, a willingness to fail and fail fast in the open is emerging.

Elbert says that while there are no specific policy guidelines around creating beta tools within government agencies, there is a rough dividing line between what sort of strategies are suited to innovation and public beta-testing, and what areas of the EIA’s work require greater risk management.

Elbert continued, “While we might be innovative in terms of how data is displayed or add-on tools, we wouldn’t approach our statistical programs in the same way. That requires a lot of rigor. Our statisticians are very proud of the numbers we release, and we have a strong culture of making sure those numbers are solid. But for the transmission and dissemination of data, we can be more innovative and keep up with a very fast pace of technology.”

A Cutting Edge API Uptake Strategy

While the inspiration for the tool came from the Federal Reserve — which shared the code from their Excel add-on to make the EIA tool possible — the approach models some of the most cutting edge API adoption strategies currently being trialed by private businesses.

Online behavior analytics company SimilarWeb, for example, has released a number of Google Tools that have built-in calls to their APIs. Users can download the templates, register for an API Key, and then customize spreadsheets and search tools directly from Google Docs. The technique has been driving API uptake and subscriptions since being introduced in July 2014.

The EIA’s approach is the same strategy. The idea is to make the power of the API accessible as a ready-made tool that can then be customized by the end user so they can create their own value from the data that the API makes available.

Use of the EIA and Federal Reserve’s APIs is free of charge, as are the add-on tools available for download.

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