Council Member Ben Kallos, right, has a new API bill (photo: William Alatriste)
City Council Member Ben Kallos is always looking for ways to make government more efficient and accessible through technology and the use of data. To that end, Kallos, himself a programmer, introduced a bill last week that would require information generated or received by city agencies to be available through an interface that allows easy use of the data and, ideally, a streamlined experience for New Yorkers interacting with their city government.
This would occur through an Application Program Interface (API); essentially, Kallos explained, “a language dictionary so a piece of software can communicate with another software.” Such a system would facilitate the automatic availability of city data through mobile- or web-based applications, opening up opportunities for the private sector to create programs that interact with city government. A program that easily transmits permit and license applications, for example.
“As we modernize government and we’re building new systems,” Kallos said in a phone interview, “those systems would need to have an API.”
Kallos cited as an example the city’s 311 helpline system, and the constant complaints from users that either they have to wait too long on the phone when calling 311 or that the mobile application is often slow and inefficient. An API, Kallos insisted, would allow third parties to build tools to submit 311 requests directly, without users having to repeatedly provide their names, addresses, and other information. “Any time we’re requesting information from the public or giving out custom-tailored information, we could do this through an API.”
“We all love being able to order food or a car at the press of a button,” he added, emphasizing that applications would make it easier to access government services more efficiently. “Government can work that way too.”
If the proposal is passed, city agencies would have to implement APIs for their services and require contracted vendors to do the same. The bill would also mandate that the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) create a central repository with information on how to utilize APIs and a list of applications that interact with city APIs.
Applied across the city government, Kallos’ proposal would have broad implications for efficiency. It would streamline, for instance, applications for permits and licenses, much like tax preparation software helps people file their taxes easily.
Kallos hopes that his bill will also encourage third-party developers to jump into the fray and help users navigate city government. Asked if this could raise potential privacy concerns, Kallos expressed confidence that protections currently in place in city law would prevent any misuse. Just as countless Americans use tax preparation software, he said, any applications would allow people to submit and request information securely. He also welcomed public input through the legislative process to address any of these concerns. “That’s why we go through the public process,” he said.
Ultimately, Kallos envisions a city where technology cuts through red tape at every level. His ideal city would be completely “seamless,” where, if a resident’s power goes out, a single tap of a button on their phone would notify their energy provider and the relevant city agencies to fix the issue. “I’d like to replace all the bureaucracy with an API that would allow the private sector to innovate and put the government in your pocket.”
What’s more, Kallos, a first-term Democrat from Manhattan who chairs the Council’s government operations committee, expects that the bill will lead to cost and labor savings at city agencies by streamlining information flow and data entry, as well as generate income by promoting growth in the private sector.
“This legislation, as I read it, mandates that the city produce a machine-readable infrastructure around data that isn’t contained in the city’s Open Data Portal,” said Noel Hidalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology group. “That means that anything that is designed and maintained as an information service needs to have some type of programmatic access. And that’s great. That’s something that in general should be a practice.”
Hidalgo emphasized that government systems designed to share public information on a webpage should be programmatically accessible to the general public. He’s “cautiously optimistic” about the bill’s implementation. “In an ideal world, this bill would force the city to move to API-driven services,” he said. “And that’s applaudable, but the concerns that exist are security and privacy.”
He insisted that proper APIs have “a lot of thought that goes into them,” and that the city doesn’t always have the necessary resources to allocate to the effort. He said the rollout, which the bill mandates would be a year after its passage, should be handled by “a municipal consultant,” along the lines of 18F, a digital services office within the federal General Services Administration, or the United States Digital Service, a White House initiative, to ensure that “these systems are adopted in a way that is forward thinking.”
And although he said that legislation is not always the answer, Hidalgo looks forward to weighing in through the public process. “The development of such a system requires iterative conversation and design,” he said. “I would love to see in this legislation accountability for user engagement, and reports in regards to usage of APIs. It’s a good start to discuss an API-driven government.”