{"API Evangelist"}

Thoughts For Federal Agencies About to Deploy Web APIs

I wanted to publish some thoughts, on what Federal Agencies responding to the Executive Order 13571 issued on April 27, 2011, and the White House CIO’s, "Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People" strategy should be considering.

These thoughts are in the business and marketing aspects web API deployment, with light thoughts in the technical areas. My speciality is not with technical deployment of APIs, I recommend agency leaders visit API-Craft, an industry forum with some seriously smart API industry leaders discussing the finer, technical points of web API deployment.

Where I would like to share some thoughts is in the business of deploying and managing Federal Agency APIs. Insights evolved over 20+ years in the technology field, but exclusively spending the last 2 years studying the business of popular APIs like Twitter and Facebook, and larger API providers like Google and Amazon Web Services.

I’m sharing my thoughts, not to benefit any company, but because I strongly believe in the transformative powers of Web APIs. Web APIs have the power to change the way our Government operates both internally, and with the public. Barack Obama’s mandate, “requiring agencies to establish central online resources for outside developers and to adopt new standards for making applicable Government information open and machine-readable by default”, marks an important point in history.

We can’t screw this up!

While much of the discussion around this announcement on Twitter, Reddit and Hacker News is positive, there is a lot of skepticism around whether the government can succeed. With this post, I wanted to share some thoughts on the essential building blocks we’ll need to make this work.

Technical Building Blocks
I will only speak lightly on essential technical building blocks that need go into Federal Agencies Web APIs, but there are a couple I consider essential:

There are plenty of other technical considerations, but I’ll leave that for other experts to deliver on.  Next lets get users, onboarded and using each agencies APis.

User Onboarding
There are a lot of challenges for the average web API developer faces when trying to integrate, initial onboarding has to be quick and painless. There are a couple of essential building blocks that assists in user onboarding:

Next for a developer to successfully go from onboarding to, API integration, it will require an essential set of resource building blocks providing everything they need to understand the API interface, and begin using:

After you’ve provided the essential technical, onboarding and resource building blocks, you need to make sure your your agencies API area has the necessary communication building blocks, allowing you to effectively communicate with users about your API, but also give your users a voice in API operations:

With proper communication building blocks in place, next make sure and address the legal considerations around the web API:

With legal expectations set, make sure and think about branding for the agency. While these web APIs are the federal government, for them to be successful, the word needs to get out that our government does such a find job making data available. There are some common API branding building blocks emerging to accomplish this:

After baking in some user implemented marketing for the agency, with API branding, make sure and provide some operational building blocks that help API users understand what is going on with the agencies APIs and where they are going:

Providing real-time communication on your API operations is important to establishing trust with developers. If you just make it part of your daily operations, it isn't that much more work.

While planning the digital strategy for your agencies web API make sure and consider non-developers. One reason for the success of web APIs is that it uses REST, which uses the technology driving the existing World Wide Web, making RESTful APIs potentially familiar to non-developers. With the right building blocks, web APIs become accessible to a wide variety of users:

Everything suggested up until now, truly supports a digital approach, to each agencies digital strategy, but in these environments, the need for face to face and human interaction can be critical to building understanding, awareness and ultimatley a community around a web API.

Events are a great way to build awareness around an API, there are several common event building blocks that are used in the industry:

I think that represents my thoughts on the essential API building blocks federal agencies should consider while formulating their digital strategy. The only other area I would offer more details on, is around API evangelism and developer advocacy. Who will be in charge of getting the word out about an API? Will this be a single person or shared responsibility? An API Evanglism strategy is critical to the success of an API, but I think I will cover that in another post.

Scrolling back up the page, this seems like a lot, and potentially counter to my wishes that we start simple and make sure this is a success. My goal with these thoughts is to provide a potential business framework that could be adopted across all agency deployments.

These building blocks are derived from reviewing the API operations of hundreds of existing public APIs, including industry heavyweights like Google and Amazon. While some APIs like Twitter deal with API management at massive scale, Google and Amazon provide models for managing large numbers of web APIs.

Make sure and spend some time and look at how Google or Amazon is organizing their developer community.  If any developer could go to any of the over 100 agencies, or the over 1000 domains, and find a consistent experience shared across ALL agency web API areas, like they do at Google or Amazon APIs, the chances for success of this iniative is much greater.

I hope someone in one of the agencies reads this, and understands the importance of this moment, and that an API is more than just a CSV or XML dump at a web address. That, with the right business approach to deploying and managing we can truly transform how government interacts both internally, inter-agency and with the public. Opening up the federal government to a whole new era of democratic participation, government transparency and interoperability.