We are doing science for policy
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
JRC experts have uncovered the potential of application programming interfaces (APIs) and proposed a framework of practical recommendations for their adoption in the public sector and the development of new applications for citizens.
APIs are machine-to-machine computing interfaces that enable one digital application to use the data and functionalities of another. They are, in a way, the connective tissue of the digital ecosystem.
As an under-the-bonnet aspect of digitalisation, users and decision-makers often overlook the importance of APIs.
The JRC report “Application Programming Interfaces in Governments: Why, What and How” argues that they should not. When governments did take a stab at rolling out API-based services, the uptake of these was rapid and massive.
APIs come with relative low investment and substantial efficiency gains. For example, Estonia’s X-Road platform got off the ground with an initial financing of a mere 300 000 euros. It links up public and private sector data, so that citizens only have to share data with the government once, saving an estimated 800 working years every single week.
APIs can also be instrumental in reacting to health emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic with timely and fact-based decisions.
An API drawing real-time information from datasets detailing intensive care bed demand facilitated the creation of an aggregating application in Lombardy, promoting the swift allocation of patients to hospital beds.
The geospatial contextualisation of the location of crowds can also be facilitated through APIs. This information is very important for public services such as traffic management, emergency response and crowd monitoring.
An application of this can be risk assessment of hotspots for the spread of a disease.
The chief advantage of APIs lies in their modularity: digital processes and datasets can be easily packaged into modules, which can be re-used and recombined for different applications.
Moreover, APIs can be scaled with near-zero marginal costs, and may also boost the efficiency of existing processes. For instance, APIs collect data from more than 50 departments in Amsterdam, saving 1-2 hours daily for civil servants by enhancing information searchability.
Moreover, APIs cannot be bypassed if public services want to move from eGovernment – the digital replication of a paper-based bureaucracy – to smart government, which makes full use of the opportunities provided by digitalisation.
The Transport for London API is one example. The initiative shared 200 datasets with software developers producing apps.
Because of this, about 600 applications were developed for functions like bike renting, real-time congestion monitoring, or statistical estimation of the relation between rainfall and cycling accidents. In total, nearly every second Londoner uses at least one of these apps, and they generate about £100 million for the economy.
Several European policy documents mention APIs. Among others, the Open data Directive makes the use of APIs mandatory for high-value and dynamic datasets.
The Commission’s European Strategy for Data calls for “the establishment of EU-wide common, interoperable data spaces”.
The JRC report recommends to take EU actions in order to better profit of API infrastructure in institutions. Most APIs are adopted in an un-coordinated manner by individual departments, using external software made by third parties.
Furthermore, a survey indicated that stakeholders deem common API standards, specifications and guidelines to be the most acknowledged enabler for API adoption, overtaking factors like the availability of internal funds or skilled developers.
The EU could be the driving force behind standardisation, ensuring that value-creation opportunities are not missed.
Enhancing API infrastructure is also necessary to guard against cyber-attacks, as APIs can act as ‘doors’ to an organization’s network.
The JRC’s Science for Policy report analyses in detail the relevance of APIs in governments and suggests the way to adopt them. Additionally, the JRC technical report provides a detailed practical framework that organisations can use to improve their API infrastructure.
It contains advice on API strategy, tactics, and operations related to policy support, platform and ecosystems, developers, and processes.
Recommendations for governments include, among others:
This study and the recommendations can help understand and then unlock the huge potential of APIs and support Europe in achieving one of the main priorities of this Commission - to make Europe fit for the digital age.