On May 9th 2013 President Barack Obama signed an executive order making open data in a machine readable format the new default for government. Now, just a year later millions of Americans are accessing open data through APIs.  Not only are they using data for traditional purposes, such as research, but more and more frequently they are leveraging data as the President hoped they would, to drive innovation and fuel both the app and traditional economy.

As radical as this may seem the idea of government providing data to industry is not new. In 1957 the Russians launched the first satellite, Sputnik to orbit the earth. For the next twenty years the Pentagon launched satellites to develop a global positioning system. In 1983 after a Soviet interceptor aircraft shot down a Korean 747 airliner, President Ronald Regan announced to the world that GPS would be made available to civilian users. Government began launching a new series of GPS satellites and releasing data that sparked a revolution, which we now take for granted. Without geo-location services where would be? Without Google maps how would we know where to go? Moreover, without geo-location data how would companies across the economy be able to leverage data for customer retention and churn reduction activities, for better planning for resource use, and even to reduce equipment theft.  A similar spurt of innovation occurred when, in 1980 the government changed weather reporting by releasing data from the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Agency (NOAA).

With 104,568 datasets from over 227 different organizations, Data.Gov is a real treasure trove of data. But up until now, most of this data lived in databases, which users can explore online or download as a CSV file. The President believes that making this data machine readable will spark another revolution. With all this data easily accessible, the private sector will create new and innovative applications that in turn will drive new jobs and possibly even create new fields and industries. In this new model, government is the steward of the data, safeguarding it, while citizens drive innovation.

In this new revolution there is a confluence of location based services, mobility and open data, and APIs are the building blocks that will help developers build new applications that fuel the overall economy in unexpected ways.


So what exactly are APIs? Technically speaking an application programming interface, or API, is a software program that enables applications to communicate with each other in a standardized way–solely through their well-known, published interface. There are many types of APIs, but today we mean Web APIs. Web services expose these APIs as endpoints that any internet-enabled language or software can access, in exactly the same way browsers access websites and services. Most public APIs use REST, and return data in human-friendly, machine-readable JSON and XML.  The popularity and adoption rate of Web APIs is their simplicity and transparency: you can actually test them by pointing a web browser at a service.  All you need to know is the address/URL.  The sum of all possible URLs that a service can respond to is its API.

The most popular API on the web today is the Google Maps API: If you have ever been to a web site, you have probably seen the Google API. Rather than having to build their own map server, any web programmer can simply use the Google API to embed a google map to show locations.

Watch this YouTube video as Gray Brooks, API Strategist at the General Services Administration, explains what an API is and why it matters to government.

When a government agency publishes an API for their data set, they open up new and innovative ways to access the data. A developer might create a mobile or web app to display the data intuitively or allow simply queries or automatically generate charts. For over 200 years the Census Bureau has been publishing data and certainly while researchers used the data for studies, nothing much was done with it. But, on July 26 2012 they made history by publishing their first ever API. Overnight a thousand developers had written new apps to take advantage of the API. Instead of downloading files, citizens could now access detailed population statistics in easy to navigate web and mobile applications. This is the kind of innovation that happens when API are published.


New APIs are being written everyday.   At Programmable Web there are 546 documented APIs.  The newest API, published on May 8 of this year is called OpenFEMA. It is an authoritative source for FEMA’s public data, which has been released as part of the Open Government Initiative. The OpenFEMA API provides free, read-only access to FEMA for the public to get accurate information on publicly funded projects, grants, and disaster declarations.

Of the 10 most popular APIs, two have been around the longest. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) API was published in September of 2005, and the United States Postal Service Track and Confirm API, was published in December of 2005.

NOAA’s NWS API provides the public, government agencies, and commercial enterprises with up to date weather forecasts, watch & warnings, advisories, and storm prediction data from the National Weather Service’s (NWS) digital forecast database.  The U.S. Postal Service Track and Confirm API provides a suite of USPS Web Tools that customers may integrate into their own websites to validate or find mailing addresses, track and confirm mail delivery, and calculate shipping charges.

But while these APIs are work horses, agencies haven’t been resting on their laurels. This March the U.S. Postal Service just released nine new APIs: a suite of Web Tools allows users to validate or find mailing addresses, track and confirm mail delivery, calculate shipping rates, and create domestic or international shipping labels.

And NOAA continues to release new APIs, the most current being the severe weather data inventory  published in December of 2013.

API Resources

With 546 listed APIS, the Programmable Web is a great resource. Here you will find a detailed catalog of government specific APIs ranging from US Trademark searches, Bureau of Labor Statistics or even petitions to congress. You will also find great news articles about APIs.

The other great resource for government APIs is GitHub. Here you will find a comprehensive list of APIs in the directory GSA/Slash-developers, or just click here…

A mashup is when you use content form more than one source to create a new service that is displayed in a single graphical interface. You could combine addresses and pictures and display them on a Google map. In a mashup you can use more than one API to make dynamic aggregation of data for visualization.

The Programmable Web lists 165 government mashups. You can view how congress stands on bills and measures, see where crime is happening in cities like Denver or see how 125 federal agencies rank on Twitter.

Mashups are just in their infancy in government, but combined with APIs, they provide a powerful way to visualize information and see correlations you might not otherwise see in a data.


Government has been collecting data for centuries. In the first wave data was computerized and it lived in databases, making it difficult for the public to access. In the second wave, the digital data was made accessible through portals where citizens using a web browser could easily access it. And in the third wave, government is making all this data open and machine readable. APIs are the building blocks to help developers create new and exciting apps. As government creates more APIs to access the troves of government data, we will truly see a revolution where government is fueling innovation in the private sector.

This article was authored by Nate Rushfinn, Principal Enterprise Architect at CA Technologies. You can follow Nate on Twitter @Nate_Rushfinn.