A couple of months ago I gave a short speech about Gov as an API at an AIIA event. Basically I believe that unless we make government data, content and transaction services API enabled and mashable, then we are simply improving upon the status quo. 1000 services designed to be much better are still 1000 services that could be integrated for users, automated at the backend, or otherwise transformed into part of a system rather than the unique siloed systems that we have today. I think the future is mashable government, and the private sector has already gone down this path so governments need to catch up!
When I rewatched it I felt it captured my thoughts around this topic really well, so below is the video and the transcript. Enjoy! Comments welcome.
The first thing is I want to talk about gov as an API. This is kind of like data.gov.au on steroids, but this goes way above and beyond data and gets into something far more profound. But just a step back, the to the concept of Government as a platform. Around the world a lot of Governments have adopted the idea of Government as a platform: let’s use common platforms, let’s use common standards, let’s try and be more efficient and effective. It’s generally been interpreted as creating platforms within Government that are common. But I think that we can do a lot better.
So Government as an API is about making Government one big conceptual API. Making the stuff that Government does discoverable programmatically, making the stuff that it does consumable programmatically, making Government the platform or a platform on which industry and citizens and indeed other Governments can actually innovate and value add. So there are many examples of this which I’ll get to but the concept here is getting towards the idea of mashable Government. Now I’m not here representing my employers or my current job or any of that kind of stuff. I’m just here speaking as a geek in Government doing some cool stuff. And obviously you’ve had the Digital Transformation Office mentioned today. There’s stuff coming about that but I’m working in there at the moment doing some cool stuff that I’m looking forward to telling you all about. So keep an eye out.
But I want you to consider the concept of mashable Government. So Australia is a country where we have a fairly egalitarian democratic view of the world. So in our minds and this is important to note, in our minds there is a role for Government. Now there’s obviously some differences around the edges about how big or small or how much I should do or shouldn’t do or whatever but the concept is that, that we’re not going to have Government going anywhere. Government will continue to deliver things, Government has a role of delivering things. The idea of mashable Government is making what the Government does more accessible, more mashable. As a citizen when you want to find something out you don’t care which jurisdiction it is, you don’t care which agency it is, you don’t care in some cases you know you don’t care who you’re talking to, you don’t care what number you have to call, you just want to get what you need. Part of the problem of course is what are all the services of Government? There is no single place right now. What are all of the, you know what’s all the content, you know with over a thousand websites or more but with lots and lots of websites just in the Federal Government and thousands more across the state and territories, where’s the right place to go? And you know sometimes people talk about you know what if we had improved SEO? Or what if we had improved themes or templates and such. If everyone has improved SEO you still have the same exact problem today, don’t you? You do a google search and then you still have lots of things to choose from and which one’s authoritative? Which one’s the most useful? Which one’s the most available?
The concept of Government as an API is making content, services, API’s, data, you know the stuff that Government produces either directly or indirectly more available to collate in a way that is user centric. That actually puts the user at the centre of the design but then also puts the understanding that other people, businesses or Governments will be able to provide value on top of what we do. So I want to imagine that all of that is available and that everything was API enabled. I want you to imagine third party re-use new applications, I mean we see small examples of that today. So to give you a couple of examples of where Governments already experimenting with this idea. Data.gov.au obviously my little baby is one little example of this, it’s a microcosm. But whilst ever data, open data was just a list of things, a catalogue of stuff it was never going to be that high value.
So what we did when we re-launched data.gov.au a couple of years ago was we said what makes data valuable to people? Well programmatic access. Discovery is useful but if you can’t get access to it, it’s almost just annoying to be able to find it but not be able to access it. So how do we make it most useful? How do we make it most reusable, most high value in capacity shall we say? In potentia? So it was about programmatic access. It was about good meta data, it was about making it so it’s a value to citizens and industry but also to Government itself. If a Government agency needs to build a service, a citizen service to do something, rather than building an API to an internal system that’s privately available only to their application which would cost them money you know they could put the data in data.gov.au. Whether it’s spatial or tabular and soon to be relational, you know different data types have different data provision needs so being able to centralise that function reduces the cost of providing it, making it easy for agencies to get the most out of their data, reduce the cost of delivering what they need to deliver on top of the data also creates an opportunity for external innovation. And I know that there’s already been loads of applications and analysis and uses of data that’s on data.gov.au and it’s only increasing everyday. Because we took open data from being a retrospective, freedom of information, compliance issue, which was never going to be sexy, right? We moved it towards how you can do things better. This is how we can enable innovation. This is how agencies can find each other’s data better and re-use it and not have to keep continually repeat the wheel. So we built a business proposition for data.gov.au that started to make it successful. So that’s been cool.
There’s been experimentation of gov as an API in the ATO. With the SBR API. With the ABN lookup or ABN lookup API. There’s so many businesses out there. I’m sure there’s a bunch in the room. When you build an application where someone puts in a business name into a app or into an application or a transaction or whatever. You can use the ABN lookup API to validate the business name. So you know it’s a really simple validation service, it means that you don’t have, as unfortunately we have right now in the whole of Government contracts data set 279 different spellings for the Department of Defence. You can start to actually get that, use what Government already has as validation services, as something to build upon. You know I really look forward to having whole of Government up to date spatial data that’s really available so people can build value on top of it. That’ll be very exciting. You know at some point I hope that happens but. Industry, experimented this with energy ratings data set. It’s a very quick example, they had to build an app as you know Ministers love to see. But they built a very, very useful app to actually compare when you’re in the store. You know your fridges and all the rest of it to see what’s best for you. But what they found, by putting the data on data.gov.au they saved money immediately and there’s a brilliant video if you go looking for this that the Department of Industry put together with Martin Hoffman that you should have a look at, which is very good. But what they found is by having the data out there, all the companies, all the retail companies that have to by law put the energy rating of every electrical device they sell on their brochures traditionally they did it by goggling, right? What’s the energy rating of this, whatever other retail companies using we’ll use that.
Completely out of date and unauthorised and not true, inaccurate. So by having the data set publically available kept up to date on a daily basis, suddenly they were able to massively reduce the cost of compliance for a piece of regulatory you know, so it actually reduced red tape. And then other application started being developed that were very useful and you know Government doesn’t have all the answers and no one pretends that. People love to pretend also that Government also has no answers. I think there’s a healthy balance in between. We’ve got a whole bunch of cool, innovators in Government doing cool stuff but we have to work in partnership and part of that includes using our stuff to enable cool innovation out there.
ABS obviously does a lot of work with API’s and that’s been wonderful to see. But also the National Health Services Directory. I don’t know who, how many people here know that? But you know it’s a directory of thousands, tens of thousands, of health services across Australia. All API enabled. Brilliant sort of work. So API enabled computing and systems and modular program design, agile program design is you know pretty typical for all of you. Because you’re in industry and you’re kind of used to that and you’re used to getting up to date with the latest thing that’ll make you competitive.
Moving Government towards that kind of approach will take a little longer but you know, but it has started. But if you take an API enabled approach to your systems design it is relatively easy to progress to taking an API approach to exposing that publically.
So, I think I only had ten minutes so imagine if all the public Government information services were carefully, were usefully right, usefully discoverable. Not just through using a google search, which appropriate metadata were and even consumable in some cases, you know what if you could actually consume some of those transaction systems or information or services and be able to then re-use it somewhere else. Because when someone is you know about to I don’t know, have a baby, they google for it first right and then they go to probably a baby, they don’t think to come to government in the first instance. So we need to make it easier for Government to go to them. When they go to baby.com, why wouldn’t baby.com be able to present to them the information that they need from Government as well. This is where we’re starting to sort of think when we start following the rabbit warren of gov as an API.
So, start thinking about what you would use. If all of these things were discoverable or if even some of them were discoverable and consumable, how would you use it? How would you innovate? How would you better serve your customers by leveraging Government as an API? So Government has and always will play a part. This is about making Government just another platform to help enable our wonderful egalitarian and democratic society. Thank you very much.
Postnote: adopting APIs as a strategy, not just a technical side effect is key here. Adopting modular architecture so that agencies can adopt the best of breed components for a system today, tomorrow and into the future, without lock in. I think just cobbling APIs on top of existing systems would miss the greater opportunity of taking a modular architecture design approach which creates more flexible, adaptable, affordable and resilient systems than the traditional single stack solution.
2 thoughts on “Government as an API: how to change the system”
I agree with everything you said above, but cast things a little differently in my mind.
The Australian Government has had an “integration surface” since inception; road signs, web sites, semaphore flags, the lot of it (“surface” is a collective noun for interfaces). Digital government massively expands the surface, and our efficacy as technologists in public service comes down in large part to the size and quality of the surface we build together.
Done well, an individual API has qualities that enhance it’s usefulness. Paraphrasing: You asked us to imagine a comprehensive and semantically cohesive surface. Those are qualities that enhance the usefulness of the aggregate thing, qualities that may or may not emerge from the writhing Precambrian soup of APIs we are starting to spawn.
So we are not faced with a choice between having or not having a National Integration Surface. It’s there, growing and changing day by day. The real choice is when (not if) we wake up and realise:
* The collective thing has value greater than the sum of it’s parts.
* It’s strategically important to the national interest.
* We should make tactical decisions about the best way to engineer the most important qualities.
Anyhow, that takes me to your conclusion; Like honesty, open APIs are the best policy. They are a sound strategy to stimulate social and economic value, enhance competitiveness and protect liberty. They are far more than mere features.