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Data.gov To House New APIs

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By Dawn Lim June 21, 2010

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A series of new application programming interfaces - tools that facilitate interaction between datasets and other software programs - will make it easier for developers to play and interact with the content on Data.gov, the online repository of federal information and a cornerstone of the open government initiative.

But those are just the preliminary steps to establishing a self-running ecosystem that will convert raw government data into valuable content and interesting applications, a White House technology expert said last week at a government IT forum.

At a June 15 panel hosted by technology news platform Information Week, Eugene Huang, senior adviser to the chief technology officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, announced that API interfaces on Data.gov "will be rolled out over the next three to six months." Details are being finalized, he added.

"We hope this will make it easier for developers to access the raw data behind Data.gov and incorporate it into their applications," Huang said in an interview.

The real question that the Obama administration faces as it attempts to open up the government doesn't revolve around implementing the right tools, he said.

"The question is, how do you build a community of individuals who are not just the data geeks but more importantly, individuals who really want to do interesting things with the data and turn that into applications that can be used by the public, much more so than the apps that have already been done?" he said.

A mysterious formula of alchemy, serendipity and the right amount of will, perhaps?

Clay Johnson, the director of Sunlight Labs, an open source community of thousands that builds applications out of government data, said that his organization, the Sunlight Foundation, never had a "sophisticated plan" for moving forward. Growth was the result of making the right connections at the right time and allowing one thing to lead to another. In his own words, "serendipity."

A sustainable ecosystem of support, once given the first spark, will happen "in a snowball as it gets going," said Todd Park, chief technology officer at the Health and Human Services Department, which is rolling out a public-private effort to build a public data warehouse and portal and was recently approached by five private sector organizations that volunteered to publish their health data in the same format and metadata as HHS' datasets to make the work of developers easier.

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