Build Once, Use Often

Mike Pulsifer aims to make transparency easier.

May marked a White House deadline for government agencies to begin streaming data directly to outside developers and the public through application programming interfaces, or APIs. Basically, these are instructions for one computer to continuously grab information from another. 

Some agencies launched a dozen or more APIs in response to the mandate, which is part of President Obama’s open government initiative. 

At the Labor Department, lead information technology specialist Mike
Pulsifer took a different tack. Labor published just one API for 175 information stockpiles, ranging from workforce statistics to historical trends for the Consumer Price Index.

Pulsifer has been assembling the API since 2011. The plan, he says, is to build for the long term. This strategy allows the agency to pack new data sets into the existing API rather than developing a separate infrastructure for each one. 

Pulsifer came up with the idea from the photo sharing site Flickr, which has consolidated all of its data into a single stream. No one else at Labor was using APIs, so building once and using often seemed like a good approach.

“We started really small with three data sets that were admittedly of limited usefulness,” he says. The plan worked, and other divisions began agreeing to let Pulsifer’s API grab their data. 

“We’ve got a tremendous amount of data that we’d love for app developers out there to turn into information,” Pulsifer says. “The stories that can be told from this data, that’s what we’re really hoping the public can produce out of this.”

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