In today’s data-driven world, APIs are all around us. Many of us interact with them every day without giving it a second thought. Whether you’re checking the weather, ordering takeaway food or using a hotel booking app on your smartphone, it’s usually an API that’s allowing you to access this information in real-time.
While the term is thrown around a lot, there’s still confusion about what APIs actually entail. In very simple terms, APIs help software and applications to talk to each other. This enables departments and organisations to share their data easily and relatively securely, even if they rely on different IT systems. It also means they can open up their data to external developers, who can use this information to build valuable applications and services.
You can probably think of dozens of private sector companies using APIs to their advantage—Amazon, Google and Twitter to name just a few. But APIs can also play a critical role in the transformation of government, helping it to deliver better services and outcomes for citizens. Here are six reasons why the public sector should be investing in APIs.
APIs can help government realise the immense and untapped value of the data it already possesses. The way data is confined within different departments has long been a challenge for the public sector, impeding the ability of employees and citizens to access the right information, at the right time. APIs can help to break down these silos by smoothing the transfer of data between different IT systems and by harnessing their value, offer actionable insights about which citizen services need improving, and how.
By enabling easier access to government data, APIs can be used to create external apps and systems that provide users and citizens with richer experiences. For example, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) offers an API to improve access to its food hygiene ratings. This means customer-facing apps can be built that provide easy access to this information. Imagine logging into your favourite food delivery app, and instantly being able to see allergen information or food alerts about the items in your cart. For someone who’s allergic to certain food types, this kind of innovation can be life-saving.
Government is going through a period of profound change and uncertainty. With the impending EU exit, policy making needs to be dynamic and responsive to last minute changes. APIs can help by giving the public sector some much needed operational flexibility. It’s faster and easier to build new services using APIs, which improves scalability and responsiveness to change. And by facilitating the flow of data, APIs can help teams and departments to work together more effectively to achieve wider strategic objectives.
Heritage infrastructure is a challenge for almost any organisation looking to deploy new services, but it’s a particularly salient issue in the public sector. Most departments rely on deeply complex and entrenched IT systems, often with long-term vendor contracts. And government can’t risk system downtime or put citizen data at risk. That’s why APIs are so powerful. APIs can be layered on top of heritage systems, helping the public sector transition gradually—with better risk management and benefits to be gained every step of the way.
While any IT transition is going to require some upfront investment, the cost of developing APIs can potentially be recouped through new revenue streams. Many companies in the private sector have successfully monetised their data by selling their API access to third parties. For example, AccuWeather offers a range of subscription packages that allow real-time API access to its weather data. Twitter’s API enterprise platform charges businesses in exchange for access to historical and real-time social data. Of course, any initiatives need to adhere to data privacy regulations, but this kind of model could potentially help to fund new and valuable services for citizens.
Maintaining compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a critical issue for the public sector—perhaps even more so than in the private sector. But APIs could actually help with compliance by providing an audit trail for data. APIs can help government departments keep track of who has been accessing what data, and when.
Although APIs have great potential in the public sector, there’s still a number of barriers slowing down adoption—including a lack of education and understanding outside of IT circles. Stay tuned for our next blog—I’ll be offering key recommendations to help government overcome these challenges, accelerate its journey and get better results from APIs.