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DTO engages with developers for API design mandate


By David Braue
Wednesday, 26 August, 2015


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Application developers within government agencies will be pushed to standardise and facilitate use of their applications by developing application programming interfaces (APIs) to an evolving set of design standards published this month by the Commonwealth Digital Transformation Office (DTO) in an inclusive online format.

The API Design Guide was originally envisioned as a deliverable within the DTO’s ongoing efforts to formalise a prescriptive Digital Service Standard (DSS) defining government agencies’ online strategies. However, after further consideration the DTO’s developer team recently published the guide on GitHub and is now engaging with developers to ensure the guide reflects current API best practice.

“When developers use an API, they often create additional value for many people,” DTO development manager Chris Gough wrote in an explanatory blog post. “A well-designed end-user experience results in a single good user experience. A well-designed API on the other hand can result in many good user experiences, often enjoyed by those the original service designer did not envision.”

The publication of the guide reflects the overarching effort to standardise agencies’ technological interactions with citizens, with the design guidelines positioned as eventually becoming mandatory for those agencies that enable external applications to access their systems using APIs.

“Developer empathy is critical to success and we need all the help we can get,” Gough wrote.

Greater usage of APIs will allow organisations like the Australian Taxation Office and Department of Human Services, which run large numbers of programs involving online elements, to more effectively provide access to key information streams and simplify the ability for third-party software to perform functions like secure document lodgement.

Such services reflect the growing move to build key applications as assemblages of other services, seamlessly linked using APIs that are called by those applications. Yet as government agencies increasingly publish APIs that let consumers interact with their services in new ways, standardisation and coherence of design will become increasingly important, said ThoughtWorks lead technical consultant Tom Sulston.

“The tooling of these is coming along in leaps and bounds,” he explained. “Security researchers and developers realise they need to be more accessible to regular citizens. There’s a huge amount of work going on in that space” as a growing “wave of momentum” sees developers modularising their services and using APIs to improve consumers’ access to secure online services and other API-driven interactions.

The need for mandatory API guidelines is also tied to the coming explosion in government agencies’ use of cloud services, which are rapidly escalating in acceptance as new cloud-first mandates — originally launched as the National Cloud Computing Strategy back in 2013 and updated by the current government last October — finally look set to gain momentum.

Greater use of cloud services will put APIs front and centre in the online service design conversation, said Gartner APAC Research Director Darryl Carlton, who called APIs “a dominant part of the conversation when it comes to cloud computing”.

“When you move to cloud you automatically assume that one large mega-solution is not going to meet your needs,” he explained. “You want to be able to integrate components and smaller applications from different vendors. It’s a breaking apart of the monolithic, single-point ERP solution into components.

“As soon as you do that,” Carlton continued, “each of these components has to be able to talk to each other in a convenient manner — and the only way to achieve this is by having common and consistent APIs that can break the hegemony of major vendors, which have created commercial lock-in through extensions to their proprietary products. It’s a huge shift in the power balance.”

Locating the API Design Guide at the heart of the open-source developer community reflects a concrete step by the DTO to ensure that any mandated design standards reflect community consensus rather than arbitrary, top-down design mandates.

“The gold standard in developer empathy is found in thriving open source projects,” Gough wrote. “Collaboration, peer review and a responsive community are the hallmarks of such projects. This does not describe Australian Government IT of today, but hopefully [it] describes the ‘government as a platform’ of tomorrow.”

Image courtesy GotCredit under CC

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