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APIs are a work in progress for government

11/03/15

Opening up application programming interfaces was a recurring issue of the techUK event, but it requires, but there are questions around how it will be done

People in government seem to be paying more attention to application programming interfaces (APIs) these days. Several speakers at last week's Public Services 2030 Conference, staged by techUK, raised the subject, indicating that it could be the ground for some of the key questions about the next stage of public sector IT.

Binary data abstractOf course it's not new to government thinking. Martha Lane Fox's Directgov 2010 report called on public authorities to open up their APIs to enable third parties to provide content and develop digital services; and the Government Service Design Manual includes guidance on opening up APIs.

There was a consensus at the conference that making the APIs of data sources available will be a crucial step towards that vision of government as a platform and a more open development of services, and nobody disputed Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude's assertion that it is already on the case. But some questions emerged for which the answers are not yet clear.

One point was that it has to be determined which public authority should provide APIs for a specific purpose. There are cases for which there are obvious choices; for example HM Revenue & Customs doing so for anything relating to taxation.

Need for clarity

But will it be so clear in every case? Are there areas, such as the convergence of health and social care, where third party developers might be confused about the appropriate source? If the data for a new service is pulled from different sources will it all be compatible? Are there any signs of organisations willing to assert themselves as the source of relevant standards? Is there enough consistency in the existing APIs, or does it need a wholesale review?

Everybody spoke about APIs largely in the future tense, with the understanding that they're a work in progress. It's clear that the Cabinet Office is taking it seriously, and it can do a lot in building government as a platform for central government services. But how closely is the rest of the public sector going to follow the lead?

Organisations are going to have to spend a lot of time on APIs over the next few years, and there will need to be some clear definitions and answers before much of the work is done to ensure the reality meets the hype.

Image: W.Rebel under GNU Free Documentation Licence through Wikimedia

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