Taking Open Government to the Next Level

I want us to ask ourselves every day, how are we using technology to make a real difference in people’s lives?” President Obama posed this question as a challenge to federal agencies, and we’ve taken that challenge seriously at the Labor Department.

On a personal level, I’m hardly a “techie” − but I appreciate how technology has made my life better in so many ways. That’s why I want to share some of the behind-the-scenes work of my agency, the department’s Office of Public Affairs, in the area of technical innovation.

First, it’s important to understand application programming interfaces, known as APIs. (Here’s a great explanation.) The easiest way to think about APIs is that they allow developers in the public and private sectors to build apps, widgets and websites based on government data. Anyone with development skills and a little creativity can use an API to tap into an agency’s data and repackage it as a useful smartphone app or other tool.

Since we published a department-wide API two years ago, developers across the country have used it to create apps that educate users about workplace safety and health, employers’ compliance with wage and hour laws, and improving employment opportunities for disabled workers, just to name a few!

Releasing data through an API was a big step forward, but it was not exactly groundbreaking.  However, since then, my team has been working hard to develop software development kits that are truly innovative because they make using our API even easier.

These kits (also known as SDKs) contain application code for six different platforms − iOS, Android, Blackberry, .Net, PHP and Ruby − that anyone creating a mobile or Web-based app using our data could incorporate. By using the kits, experienced developers will save time and novice developers will be able to work with DOL data in just a few minutes.

And that’s not all − our innovation went a step further. Other federal agencies have their own APIs, and for a variety of technical and business reasons, many have very different requirements for using their APIs. Mike Pulsifer, a federal employee in my office, together with contractors Chuck Brouse, Patrick Johnson and Wendell Hatcher, just finished updating our kits to work with APIs across the federal government. Now developers can easily combine data from the Labor Department with data from 26 other agencies and multi-agency programs. That’s a lot of data!

All of these kits can be downloaded from our developer site. Additionally, in keeping with the federal digital government strategy, each has been published as an open source project on github, a popular code-sharing site. For a list of federal APIs that are supported by our kits, check the github repository’s wiki page. This list will be updated as the kits are tested with additional federal APIs.

Our work is helping the government be more efficient and keep up with constantly changing technology. But most importantly, investing in this kind of technology to create a more open government is a priority for us because it empowers you. As the president has said, “we must never forget who our customers are − the American people.”

Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs.

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