Time for api.gov.ie?

16th of October 2007 by conor

In a recent competition for the best idea for a webapp with an Irish focus, I was surprised to find several submissions were about citizen interaction with the public service and the Government. This set me thinking that we should not encourage the public service to build applications and sites but to build APIs for our data.

The key word is “our”. There is still a strong belief in the public service that somehow they own our data whether that is a hospital telling me I can only get my son’s x-rays through the Freedom of Information act, the Ordnance Survey keeping an iron-grip on GIS data or local government publishing data in proprietary Word docs and PDFs.

One developer who will soon be releasing a much needed webapp which queries particular data across many County Councils told me that he has had to build multiple converters and scrapers for this data. Given that the LGCSB (Local Government Computer Services Board) should be in charge of all of this, how did we end up in this situation?

Expecting the public service to build webapps for us is a fool’s errand. They would spend €100m, take five years and it wouldn’t work when it was finished. However, if they make each department’s data available along with some simple APIs, then citizens can do it for themselves, or pay someone to do it. Free unlimited access to all APIs for individual or non-commercial use and some small pay-as-you-go for commercial use. I’m sure Yahoo can give plenty of guidance here.

So what data do we want and need? Anything available under Freedom of Information from crime rates per county to court cases to tax revenue by category. If it exists, we want it. Private data like tax is clearly out of bounds but the Revenue could make statistics available and allow us to do our own slicing and dicing. Maybe we wouldn’t need the ESRI reports any more, we could build our own.

Am I living in a fantasy land or does anyone think this can happen? Revenue Online proves that the capability to build smart, useful, reliable applications exists in some parts of the Irish Civil Service. Perhaps if those guys released an API, the others might follow?

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Comment posted by Damien
at 10/18/2007 3:39:08 AM

The Guardian have a long running campaign in the UK to open access to public data. The premise is that you’ve already paid for it once with your taxes, you shouldnt have to pay for it again.

A good starting point in ireland would be the CSO – they don’t have an API, but at least seem open to sharing census and other stats we paid them to collect – see http://www.cso.ie/px/ and also have some RSS feeds

I think nooked.com (in Sligo) have also been RSS feed enabling public bodies, though usually to suck in data, not pump it out..

Damien

Comment posted by DennisDeery.com
at 10/17/2007 7:47:04 PM

["¦] blognation Ireland » Blog Archive » Time for api.gov.ie? Irish blogger Conor O’Neill offers a great idea – why don’t governments provide an open application-programming interface to their mounds of data? How about it U.S.A.? (tags: government) ["¦]

Comment posted by John Ward
at 10/17/2007 2:45:27 PM

It is ESB etc”¦ however it could’ve served as a backend data service.

I would doubt there are any skunkworks, my experience of the public sector is that everything has to documented before being done. Another aspect is that security, and data privacy is often the most important requirement above all else which could hamper anything like this. It would have to go through all sorts of compliance reviews. It’s unfortunate but its the reality.

Comment posted by Conor O’Neill
at 10/17/2007 8:36:55 AM

Thanks for that link John, I wasn’t aware of Reach until this morning. I’ve just checked the site and it fit my prediction perfectly: it tried to install MSXML 5.0 and failed in Internet Explorer 7. Nuff said really.

But this is pure Enterprise level stuff anyway. I’m sure it is ESBed and WS-*’ed up the wazoo it but doesn’t enable citizens or average developers to do things for themselves.

Has anything skunkworks ever come out of the public service? A few techie civil servants with spare time on their hands and some public data that is really hard to get at”¦”¦”¦”¦.

Comment posted by hugh
at 10/16/2007 9:58:42 PM

data liberators of the world, unite!

Comment posted by datalibre.ca · when irish api’s are smilin’
at 10/16/2007 9:57:34 PM

["¦] ie.blognation.com: In a recent competition for the best idea for a webapp with an Irish focus, I was surprised to ["¦]

Comment posted by John Ward
at 10/16/2007 3:30:49 PM

Conor,
There is an initiative to do this. It is called Reach Public Services Broker and it was a project I worked on. The concept was simple: a single place to engage with the public sector, data from each of the agencies would be made available via a message broker – Address from welfare, Passport id from foreign affairs, License id from Environment. Unfortunately it hasn’t delivered on the vision, and I fear may never do.

http://www.reachservices.ie/

http://www.reach.ie

In terms of thought leadership it was way ahead of its time. The reality of delivery was somewhat different. Each agency has its own IT program they’re working on, with budgets tied to that. Second, the government requires outside expertise and expensive consultants to advise them, a second bunch to build it. This becomes expensive and can cause problems.

John

Comment posted by Steven Livingstone
at 10/16/2007 2:56:52 PM

James, if someone wrote an API – even if behind the scences it scraped stuff – consumers would write their clients against it and when the “real” API’s became available that would not change. You would be the API

Comment posted by Conor O’Neill
at 10/16/2007 2:18:36 PM

I wouldn’t mind so much if Ordnance Survey would actually launch the great new features they announced aeons ago. If they would also do a deal with Google so that we get non-joke rural GoogMaps, then we could use Google APIs!

A simple start for all the others would be RSS feeds for every category of guide, form and press release published by each department. Then let the geek citizens build the portals for the average joe in the street.

Comment posted by James Corbett
at 10/16/2007 1:46:59 PM

I think it’s a great idea, whatever about the practicalities. The Ordinance Survey situation galled me so much a few years ago, when I bought my first GPS device, that I setup a Yahoo Group called OpenEir to see if we could build an “open source map” of Ireland. There was quite a bit of interest but it never took off.

On a separate note I trawled through all the government department websites lately in search of RSS feeds and found that only 5 departments – (1)Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, (2) Enterprise, Trade and Employment, (3) Environment, Heritage and Local Government, (4) Health and Children, and (5) Social and Family Affairs, provided feed for their press sections. The department of Health and Children stands out for offering 6 separate feeds. Ironic that it’s not Comms, Energy and Natural Resources, eh!

I was actually thinking of building scrapers for each of the other departments but feck it”¦ why should I even have to consider that. This isn’t even APIs we’re taking about, just drop dead simple RSS feeds

6 Responses to “Time for api.gov.ie?”

[...] availability. Closer to home, Conor at web2ireland outlined his thoughts – ambitious ones – for an API for Government which garnered a lot of [...]

[...] We’ve already covered this subject before – Time for api.gov.ie? [...]

The UK public data list is growing but it is still an onerous task for developers with multiple formats (Excel, XML, CSV), methods (HTTP, FTP) and licenses (including manual registration systems.)

I like your idea of “api.gov.ie” though. You could see that idea spreading; api.gov.uk, api.gov.za etc.

Another way is for Enterprise Ireland to start educating its fund beneficiaries on common APIs and formats. I’d love to see a “common formats and APIs” conference for Irish technology startups.

[...] back in October 2007, I asked if it was time for api.gov.ie. We were unfortunately too busy building the tenements and ghettos of the future at that time to be [...]

Loved to read your blog. I would like to suggest you that traffic show most people read blogs on Mondays. So it should encourage bloggers to write new write ups over the weekend primarily.
regards
sears parts