MY article two weeks ago on medical data seems to have started a little discussion on the web in Ireland about controlling our own data. The conversation on the web has now evolved into the creation of APIs for government systems, allowing ease of movement of our data to and from government. So you may ask, what are APIs?
API stands for Application Programming Interface and is a way of accessing a computer system using another computer system. With an API, an application can send out data to another computer, ask for the data to be numbercrunched and then get the processed data back, meaning the original application itself can remain lightweight.
There would be many business opportunities if the Irish government included APIs in its systems. With APIs it would allow a much more streamlined interaction between government and businesses.
Take the Revenue Online Service for example. This award-winning website makes managing all your tax affairs much more efficient, but with an API it could become even more streamlined.
With ROS you still need to go to the website and log in and fill in forms and so forth to file tax details and check up on your returns. With APIs, the accounting software you use for your business, or even Microsoft Excel, could do all the filing. Fill in a form once, press the 'File Returns' button and you'd be finished.
While it would save a person or a small business a few minutes, collectively it could be a massive time-saver.
ROS is one of many online systems to interact with government and one of hundreds if not thousands of 'conduits', where the general public exchange information with the authorities.
It's not just about efficiency though.
Many business opportunities would stem from using APIs to open up and give away what the government now charges for or simply doesn't share with us.
Ordnance Survey Ireland looks after the mapping information for this country and has fantastically detailed information on every line and contour of this island. For a business to use some of this data in a commercial form costs money and many start-up businesses are discouraged by OSI pricing. Many businesses now resort to using mapping services from Google and Live. com.
Google has an API for its mapping service and hundreds of commercial and non-commercial services have been built on top of this, doing very clever things with the data which Google never considered. Irish service UseAMap. com and sister site JustRoutes. com use Google maps for event planning and for green travel planning using public transport, but outside the main cities, Google's maps are far from detailed.
If OSI data were free for research and non-commercial services and had APIs like Google, we might see a lot of potential Irish business ideas flourishing after starting off as side-projects for individuals and crossing that non-commercial to commercial boundary.
OSI data is just a small subset of the information that is collected and stored by the government. It could be used by businesses for R&D and then could be licensed to commercial ventures that evolved from this R&D, or the government could be given a share of the intellectual property created from the research.
If we've learned anything in the past few years, it's that the free flow of information increases the value of those that provide the information and those that use it. Perhaps the biggest kickstart the government can give our knowledge economy would be if the state itself used APIs to unlock its (and our) data and shared in the potential social and business wealth generated by the use of it.