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With FBOpen API, 18F shows what's possible in government

There has been some great coverage of the new group of tech specialists out of the GSA, dubbed 18F. According to their own home page, 18F:

…builds effective, user-centric digital services focused on the interaction between government and the people and businesses it serves. We help agencies deliver on their mission through the development of digital and web services.

FBOpen
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I know most of the team members from my work with the GSA, and my own time (albeit short) as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, and I am extremely optimistic about the potential of the team. This optimism is being seriously validated after looking through the group’s recent release of the FBOpen API, which is a simple API resource to get access to opportunities to do business with the U.S. federal government.

Use existing tools

18F demonstrates their tech chops by not re-inventing the wheel when it comes to designing and developing the FBOpen API. After they downloaded the existing business opportunity XML dumps from FBO.gov, they employed Apache Solr to develop a thin API layer on top of the files. Solr does two things well, it provides a REST interface on top of document stores, and supports the Lucene query syntax, which provides a powerful query interface on top of the simple API. Beyond Solr, 18F also used Apiary and Github, to cobble together a platform for API operations, demonstrating their dedication to agility and speed.

Simplicity rules

The FBOpen API interface adheres to API simplicity by providing logical, versioned URI for accessing the government business opportunities, with a query and data source parameter allowing you to tailor the source of your query. Then you can filter by noncompetes or closed opportunities, as well as controlling the number of results returned, including common pagination controls developers are used to when working with APIs. FBOpen API does one thing, and does it well – the calling card of successful APIs.

Modern design lifecycle

Again, demonstrating their grasp of modern technology, 18F employs Apiary to model and design the FBOpen API interface – using API Blueprint allowed them to define the API interface in markdown, then deploy a mock interface, interactive API documentation and code samples in a variety of languages. This approach to designing APIs in government is the future for not just providing a machine readable definition of the API, but delivers the documentation and code necessary to onboard any developer in minutes—increasing the chances the API will be integrated with.

Open By Default

The FBOpen API sets the bar for all government APIs, by making sure not just the API is public and accessible, but so is the API design, source code and underlying tooling—allowing anyone to deploy an instance of the FBOpen API. Since FBOpen is built on Solr, publicly available XML data source, and published on GitHub, anyone can download or fork, and deploy their own instance of the FBOpen API. This is the definition of an open API.

Central key management with api.data.gov

Before you can make calls on the central FBOpen API instance, you must obtain an API key from api.data.gov. This should be standard business operations for ALL federal government APIs. Developers shouldn’t have to manage separate accounts with each agency, they should be able to request credentials in a single location, and use across all APIs they consume within in the federal government. api.data.gov uses API Umbrella, an open source API management solution developed by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and is employed by the GSA in the common API infrastructure available to all agencies.

Read / write APIs in government (kindasorta)

I started to cry when I saw that there was not just a GET method for FBOpen, but here was a POST method, allowing for users to add or update opportunities via the API—then I saw it was disabled, and the tears dried up. The option is only available if you deploy your own instance of the API, which in my opinion actually represents the future of read / write APIs in government. I just don’t think government can move fast enough, and manage the responsibility of write APIs in all scenarios, and providing open source APIs like FBOpen, that anyone can download, install and allow for adding and updating data can bridge this canyon. If enough trusted instances of the FBOpen can be established outside the federal government firewall, agencies can make their own decision around which sources they want to trust and pull opportunities back into internal systems. With proper certification of API deployments by our government, APIs lie FBOpen can share the load of managing data with private sector, without the risk that comes with doing it all internally.

Cross-posted from API Evangelist by former Presidential Innovation Fellow Kin Lane.

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