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Reforming government websites with app developers in mind

Among the most important developments in the relaunched FCC.gov website is its use of open source application programming interfaces, the Federal Communications Commission's new media specialist Gray Brooks said recently.

APIs are essentially buckets of information that can be easily accessed and read by other computers.

A large portion of the new FCC.gov is actually stored in cloud-based APIs rather than on the site itself, which makes it easier to update site content. More important, website and mobile application developers can draw updated information automatically from FCC APIs without spending time manually transferring information from one place to another, Brooks said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has used similar APIs at NOAA.gov, enabling developers to rely on rapidly updated weather information, Brooks said.

"Basically, we're letting them build something that can be automatically maintained going forward," he said. "No one wants to build an app that is probably going to be wrong tomorrow. What they want to build is something that's able to dynamically stay up to date."

Federal agencies have designedmore than 80 mobile applications in-house, but the government is more broadly focused on spurring private sector developers to build apps using government data.

FCC sponsored a competition earlier this year for app developers using its data to promote Internet openness.

Brooks was speaking earlier this month at a panel discussion on open source architectures for government websites. The event was hosted by Acquia, a vendor that helps federal agencies move their sites to open source Drupal content management systems.

Storing Web content in APIs rather than posting it directly to its site also allows FCC to tailor the data for particular users based on stored information about them, Brooks said. The agency is working on a site called My.fcc.gov, which will create customized website interfaces for individual visitors.

The Energy Department is using a similar tool to customize its Web presentation based on a visitor's ZIP code.

When it relaunched its site in August, Energy joined several dozen dot-gov websites -- including Whitehouse.gov and Commerce.gov -- that have moved in recent years to Drupal and other open source content management systems.

Proponents say moving to popular, open source Web architectures reduces the amount of time and money agencies spend keeping proprietary systems up to date. Skeptics, though, say it's often difficult to retrofit open source architectures to meet an agency's specific needs, and open source architectures can become outdated as quickly as proprietary ones.

The government in June embarked on a massive campaign to simplify and rationalize its Web footprint, a move that likely will lead to some redesigning of most main agency sites. The reform effort is aimed both at paring down the federal Web footprint, which had grown to nearly 2,000 top-level domains, and at making content easier to search and navigate.

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