What is an API?

APIs, or application programming interfaces, are used behind the scenes to connect all types of information from different locations with users.

Technically, an API is “a set of routines, protocols, and tools for building software applications. An API expresses a software component in terms of its operations, inputs, outputs and underlying data types.”

In simpler terms, APIs provide an architecture to easily build or alter complex applications with greater speed and usability than if you built each application without standard methods for accessing, moving or sharing data.

Imagine building a house without regard for standard-sized windows, door frames or stair treads. It would be very difficult to repair, modify or renovate the house over time.

APIs connect information in siloed agency databases and other sources with web apps, mobile devices, IoT sensors, the cloud and practically anything else connected to the Internet. As a result, they let agencies place their content across multiple platforms and mediums.

There are lots of different APIs that serve many different purposes. An API can extract language from the daily Congressional Record for display on a website for instance, or pull live airport status and display current flight paths on a geospatial map. Content created in one place can be published as an app or website widget in many locations, with real-time updates to keep the information current.

APIs are a major component of a big initiative many agencies are pursuing: digital transformation. In the public sector, that means undergoing a fundamental change in the way an agency operates to meet the demands of today’s connected world.

Digital transformation fueled by APIs helps government achieve many benefits, including creating more consistent experience for citizens across multiple media platforms. According to CA Technologies report, this is the top driver for digital transformation with 49 percent of public servants citing the desire to improve customer satisfaction.

Digital transformation can also help achieve:

  • Better workplace productivity with automated business procedures and administrative processes for employees
  • Cost savings by replacing manual information changes with automatic updates
  • Expanded reach of your services with easy sharing of your agency’s content on websites and in apps

APIs are critical to achieving digital transformation – they’re the building blocks that make it all possible. But with so much data to be shared and the number of APIs needed to share that data, agencies need a strategy to keep it all organized.

To learn what looks like and how to create it, check out our course, How to Manage Your Agency APIs, on GovLoop Academy. Plus, you can learn 0.2 CPEs when you complete the course!


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