Case Study: untapping the potential of APIs to share government data
APIs may not only be beneficial for companies and all types of businesses in the private sector. Public institutions and organizations may also find that they are a perfect resource to streamline processes and improve user experience.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the United States shared its information publicly by using worksheets or downloading static data. However, the significant increase in demand led to more dynamic requests.
The institution realized that it had to modify the means of sharing data, given the need to ensure the availability of updated sets of information as possible at all times. Most of this increased demand was the result of developer interest in using the National Laboratory's data to build their own applications or as an instrument to carry out their own analyses, which led to requests in JSON and XML formats.
Change of direction thanks to APIs
To deal with this increase in demand, the NREL changed the way it shared data by using application programming interfaces: APIs. Hence, in order to meet some of the challenges posed by the creation and presentation of the new APIs, the institution developed a common platform so that all the APIs used by the NREL could be used by third parties.
As a result, NREL launched its Developers Network in October 2011 with two goals in mind: to build a common platform that would make it easier for the public to use their APIs and easier for their own developers to become more productive. To make it easier for the public to use these products, it opted for:
● A single point of access: its APIs correspond to an ample series of projects and can be developed by different NREL teams. This could be confusing for an external user, so it was important to assemble all their APIs in a single location so developers could find and use them.
● A single license agreement: in the past, the institution had to sign data exchange agreements with each individual interested in accessing its data. It was essential to streamline this process so any user could easily access their public data by accepting a flexible and generic data use agreement.
The NREL also wanted to make it easier for its developers to build more APIs and present them to the public.
On the other hand, this process allowed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to identify a common functionality for all public APIs. This functionality consists of a series of standardized characteristics found in all the APIs on its platform:
- Authentication: a single API password can be used to access any of the NREL's public APIs.
- Speed limit: API requests from individual users are choked to prevent abuse.
- Analysis: all API requests are registered and the analyses can be compiled for any API or user.
- Documentation: document format is standardized in all the APIs to facilitate writing and comprehension.
The platform built by the institution to meet these needs was launched as API Umbrella. This is an API proxy that can be used for easy aggregation of common functions to any API, such as passwords, speed limits and analysis.
The first results were a success. Between the public launch of the Developers Network in October 2011 and November 2012, the NREL launched 13 public web services, 366 users were registered for API testing, there were 825,000 public API requests and 29,000,000 internal API requests (within the NREL). In addition, its APIs were used to launch a dozen applications for iPhone, Android and desktops.
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