Application programming interfaces (APIs) may sound like a purely technical concern. But really, they are a policy and solution-enabling technology that can help governments build once, work collaboratively, and prepare for the longer-term impacts of not just public health crises, but also extreme weather events. Digital leaders need to shadow policy and government service providers and support them in a parallel process that helps them turn crisis-driven responses into ongoing solutions and collaborative practices that meet the new normal that will evolve from COVID-19.
Governments around the world have been moving towards API-enabled infrastructures in order to create digital services, better manage and share data across departments, and work with external stakeholders.
The below map shows where governments around the world are sharing best practices about moving towards an API-based approach:
Now, as governments grapple with the ramifications of COVID-19, this work is undoubtedly on pause or seen as a lesser priority. But as the global public health crisis continues and creates new local impacts, governments will need to return to this API work as a central part of the solution.
APIs are a way to connect systems together. They are a systems interface that makes two systems be able to talk to each other. But they are not just a technical concern. They are a policy enabling technology that can help governments solve complex problems. The below example discusses how:
Governments need to know how many supplies hospitals have and where these are located across the health care systems network.
They also need to know where testing is occurring and where positive test results are most prevalent.
This can help them in planning responses and managing allocation of new resources as they become available.
One of the challenges we are seeing in governments around the globe, at all levels (national, regional, county and local) is that most governments do not have this level of insight. Each hospital has their own system of recording supplies. Testing data is in a separate system run by a state government. External data from private businesses in logistics, warehousing, and supplies distribution also have their own systems.
If each of these data sources had a set of standardised APIs that everyone agreed would be used on top of their data systems, governments could create dashboards and automated reports so that they had real-time insight into where the greatest needs are and where the bottlenecks were occurring. If they take an equity-based approach, they could use demographics and health statistics data as overlays so that they could also map which areas of concentrated disadvantage needed the greatest supports.
New systems design for government
In our above example, there are a lot of mini steps along the way:
- Governments (decision-makers, policy makers, healthcare planners, logistics and supply policy people, etc) need to identify what insights they need and what reporting will help them make decisions
- Governments will need to identify what datasets are available that are useful for this oversight
- Governments need to match datasets by their fields and understand how to clean the data. For example, hospital A may use one product ID catalogue to define relevant products. Hospital B may use a different product ID catalogue to define the same products. The Government department may use a third. Industry suppliers may each use their own product catalogues. So there needs to be a data model that says that hospital A product ID = hospital B product ID = government catalogue ID = industry stakeholder ID, etc. This may need to be repeated not just for each product, but for how locations are described (using geocodes or latitude/longitude), how time is formatted (MM/DD/YY or DD/MM/YY, etc) in different data tables, often district boundaries are classified in different ways (which led BetaNYC to create a project to identify New York's boundaries - a complexity most places have in common), and so on.
- Private industry may be willing to expose some of their data to assist in the pandemic response at the local level, but they may only be willing to share particular data items in their datasets and not expose what they see as commercial-in-confidence data, especially if multiple competitors are all contributing to the one system.
- Datasets with planning data or testing data may also be linked to private health data or identifiable data, so there need to be data privacy controls in place to ensure this data isn’t leaked out if datasets are shared.
Because of these related but independent constraints, there will need to be agreement by all stakeholders to create and use standardised APIs for such a system. Some authority will need to check that when APIs are built to connect the various elements in this system that they are built to the agreed standards, that they will help achieve the overall insight goal, and that they are secure and free of risk.
In the rush to build data insights for COVID-19, many governments have not created systems that can analyse incidence by socioeconomic background or race, thus obscuring key data that is needed to help respond to areas facing the most critical impacts. An authority assessing each API built for this system could ask whether the data being channeled through the API will be capable of enabling this type of analysis.
Once data is cleaned and normalised so that oranges can be compared with oranges, APIs will also need to be built to connect the datasets to the dashboards or reporting mechanisms.
There will also need to be supports for each stakeholder to help them use the APIs to integrate their data or services into the government's system. Governments will need to ensure that they are abiding by the agreements on what data is exposed and shared. They will need to monitor security risks and access permissions. Government teams will also need to make sure the APIs stay up and running and that new datasets are added when new needs become clear.
Challenges to overcome when encouraging collaborative action
There are two main risks when trying to encourage governments to adopt this approach, and they both relate to working from a crisis mentality.
Risk 1: “We don’t have time to do this methodically”
As governments scramble to build data reports and dashboards that integrate data from various stakeholders, the risk is that it is seen as a luxury to invest in building standardised APIs to connect these data sources together. (In fact, if relevant datasets were available by API, they would enable faster decision-making and better planning in such an emergency. This work will not be wasted, whenever it is done.) Now, in the critical rush, the challenge is to get that data into a format that can be used. The problem with this is that as the data is updated, it needs to go through the above processes again: normalised (matched up), cleaned so it is all in the same format and any errors in the data corrected, checked for privacy and security risks, and added into reporting systems. As new bottlenecks are identified (for example, oxygen supplies are a crucial need once ventilators are up and running), new data sources might need to be added. If someone has an amazing idea, like a new technique to map logistics flows for moving resources from one hospital to another by using a specific mapping system, then all the data has to be moved and tested in that new system, almost manually.
Risk 2: “We aren’t thinking about one month from now”
Even if we are effective with flattening the curve at city, regional and state levels around the world, there are fundamental changes ahead to the way societies will need to be organised. As governments lighten up on shelter-in-place and quarantine mandates, an even closer eye on available resources and incidence rates will be needed. The progress made by everyone staying at home will be lost if everyone goes back to normal life all at once. Experts are suggesting this will require a rolling series of interventions: limited populations being able to move around, then more stay-at-home mandates, then a bit of movement, then stay-at-home, etc in rolling cycles.
As we build just-in-time data systems to address urgent data insight needs, we will potentially be stuck without the infrastructure that will enable governments to build this insight systemically so that they can move on to other tasks:
- Alerts and communications systems to keep the public informed about how much they can move around,
- Data and digital service systems to support people who are un- or underemployed or in caregiving roles,
- and so on.
The four main impacts of COVID-19 that will require Digital Government APIs
Already it is clear that COVID-19 will have a long-term impact on our social fabric and on government operations. The four main impacts are:
- Governments will continue to need to connect with citizens, businesses, community groups, researchers and industry remotely
- Governments will need to integrate data from various sources (including crowdsourced from citizens and shared by private industry) in real-time.
- Governments will need to work collaboratively, in ecosystem models.
- Governments will begin to face new challenges while adjusting to the new normal of COVID-19.
1. Governments will need to connect remotely
As discussed above, as we move into longer term management of COVID-19, governments will need to have communication systems with citizens to discuss when it is suitable to move around, and when it is necessary to shelter-in-place, or create city-wide pauses. Governments will also need to extend their digital services offerings via online or mobile channels.
Many governments are building their digital services with APIs. A single digital service (for example, for childcare placements) may need to verify your identity, check your eligibility, determine which local service provider is in your neighbourhood, manage payment arrangements, and sign you up. Each one of these functionalities may be built with an API. When a government creates a digital service, they may make some bespoke aspects related to the specific service, but they also daisy-chain API functionalities, such as an identity verification service API or a payments API, together as reusable components. They will need to do this more often as new mobile and online services are needed to ensure governments can connect with citizens and businesses during shelter-in-place.
2. Governments will need to integrate data in real-time
The boxed example above in this post showed one need for real-time insights where data sources come from a wide range of sources. That will be repeated across multiple areas. For example, toilet paper and tampons distribution may be needed to be managed by governments. Current consumer shortages may mean that governments look into working with local supermarkets so that citizens can only by a certain limit per household. That may need to be checked to prevent hoarding, and logistics and distribution supply chains may need to be mapped and managed using real-time data sources. If workplaces introduce thermometers to check temperatures of staff on location in any given day, perhaps there will be OH&S data needs around that. Already new needs have been surfacing: ideas for a mobile nurses and therapists brigade that can move between states and counties has been identified:
A dataset enabled by APIs can help ensure that there is insight over the allocation of resources and the availability of supports to these workers when channeling them to areas of greatest need.
3. Governments will need to work collaboratively in ecosystem models
COVID-19 is showing that governments cannot solve this public health and social challenge alone. Models like New York’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Coalition show that “success will involve community leaders from a range of sectors, including:
- Lawyers and policy professionals
- Social services professionals
- Clinical professionals familiar with at-risk populations
- Data and analytics professionals
- Project management experts." (from Case study of NYC COVID-19 by United States of Care)
APIs encourage collaborative action in an ecosystem because stakeholders have to work together to agree on data models and standards they will use. Ecosystems are also excellent for encouraging stakeholders to agree on what the priority use case needs are so that they can be built first.
4. Governments will need to do all of this as seasonal extreme weather events re-emerge
As spring arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, many countries will also see a return to more extreme weather events. Cyclones, hurricanes, floods, drought, and bushfires all ravaged countries in 2019 as the weather heated up. Already, in the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has warned that widespread flooding is expected in central and southeastern United States in March to May. This is predicted to occur at about the same time as these areas will also see peak infection rates from coronavirus, according to prediction models from the New York Times and Columbia University.
I don’t mention this to be alarmist, but to highlight the work ahead for many state, county, and city governments around the world who will be grappling with ongoing COVID-19 management, higher citizen unemployment and business impacts, and an increasingly hostile climate environment. APIs will be essential to help governments share data, build solutions faster, and work with a range of stakeholders.
How can governments get started or continue their efforts?
Last year, I collaborated with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and governments across Europe to design a Government API Framework. This Framework will be released publicly in the coming months, but I believe its findings, which were validated by governments and industry at a workshop in Paris in December last year, will be important to enable cohesive, strategic responses to COVID-19 and other societal pressures. This API Framework (part of a body of work completed by the European Commission) acknowledges that the main goal is not to take governments offline from their policy work, but instead to support digital leaders to shadow alongside decision-makers and departmental service providers to help build out APIs as part of a policy enabling technological infrastructure.
Summing up all the suggestions throughout this post would mean taking an approach that targets policy goals, maps the terrain and tools of an ecosystem, enhances team skills, and applies best practice techniques:
Governments have often already set their priority goals (no doubt these are shifting with COVID-19), they have identified their ecosystem stakeholders, and they have defined core principles to guide their processes. Ecosystem stakeholders can help identify the most urgent needs for what solutions should be built. There is a governance authority to ensure standards are used and ecosystem stakeholders are involved. All players understand the value of APIs in helping achieve goals and in standardising data and services infrastructures. From all of that, as solutions are built, a digital team with API responsibilities can work in parallel to help turn one-off, crisis-motivated solutions into new, longer-term systems solutions. APIs can help rebuild our government infrastructure. Governments can create new collaborative ecosystems. And together, we can rebuild what our societies will look like, and how we will all contribute and support each other, in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.
Post last updated: April 6, 2020.