Saturday, January 25, 2014

APIs for Government Services

I recently befriended a guy who used to work in the mayor's office. During his tenure he oversaw several key transportation initiatives related to making the city more green and efficient. After speaking with him an idea came to mind regarding the importance of opening up government data to third parties via APIs. This is, by no means, a new idea, but it became obvious to me what can be gained once that happens.

Currently, if I want to access my DMV information, I have to visit a website developed by the government. Government websites are notorious for their poor design. Yesterday, I visited an FAA website to make an affirmation and this is what I saw...

Click to enlarge

I spent a couple minutes looking up and down the webpage wondering where to click to register my affirmation. I finally discovered that the entire green shaded area was a "button" to click on for affirmation. Although spelling out "click here" is usually a poor design choice, this is clearly a case where that would have been helpful. Even better would have been a simple button reading "I Affirm." If you look closer at the screen shot, you'll see there's actually a second button (the mauve shaded area) below the green one.

Data Wants to be Free

The reason I harp on poorly designed government websites is it would be simpler for governments to mind the data and let third parties design the websites and apps to disseminate it. Much of this data should be in the public domain, such as where a bus, train, or letter carrier is at any given time. Private government data, like my DMV information, can just as easily be accessed without compromise in much the same way that third parties access your Facebook or Twitter account.

The private company, Car2Go, does a great job at sharing data. Car2Go has their own free app and they publish their car data APIs for third parties to access and develop against. Car2Go doesn't make any more or less money if a customer uses their app or a third party app. Third parties are incentivized since they can sell their apps. Car2Go makes their money on the car rentals while third parties make their money selling their own apps.

The next time you find yourself on a marginal government website think about how great it would be if a professional web design firm got a hold of it.

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