APIs, Accessibility and Mobility

3 07 2009

Recently the Department of Finance and Deregulation asked for feedback on the latest version of their Web Publishing Guide.  This post is a tangible recommendation for this and also relates to the broader #publicsphere discussion currently taking place.

I would recommend changes to 2 sections within the AGIMO Web Publishing Guide.

First, I’d remove RSS from the Technical Development section and create a separate section entitled Open Data and Application Programmer Interfaces or just Open Data and APIs.

This would then be the logical home for the RSS link and should be fleshed out to include Open Data expectations or policies and discussion around common Web Service Interface topics such as SOA, REST, XML-RPC, JSON-RPC, etc. and even SOAP for legacy systems and from my perspective SOAPjr for modern Ajax driven applications 8)

I will not propose here the exact structure I think this should be as that’s really a call for AGIMO, however there is a wealth of existing information in this area and I along with a wide range of other developers would happily engage in an Open Data discussion to help this process along.

The second recommendation I would make would be to bind the content of the Accessibility and Equity section to this new Open Data and APIs section in a deep and intimate way.  Both at a guideline content level and also at a policy level.

Open Data and APIs are the un-recognised foundation of true accessibility and equitible access.  If you simply encourage developers to create WCAG compliant sites then you are fixing your accessibility benefits in cement – at a certain cultural point in time.  However if you encourage or require developers to first deliver Open Data and APIs then you have enabled any other group or developer to then create new and targeted services that meet the needs of the group they are interested in or are a part of.

This cliched old proverb seems relevant and insightful again in this particular context:

Give a [person] a fish and you feed them for a day
Teach them how to fish and you feed them for a lifetime

This is also increasingly relevant as the “browsing device” landscape fractures even further.  Plain Old Mobiles (POMs), iPhones and the flood of new devices will be enabled by this and our burgeoning new market will be supported instead of constrained.

There two follow up points to this discussion.

1. I am NOT recommending that focus be removed from WCAG compliance.  I am merely suggesting that it should come AFTER Open Data and API requirements and I believe that overall Accessibility in all forms will be improved by this.

2. Some people may argue that this is shifting the onus from Government developers out into the community.  I would argue that this can be viewed differently.  It’s not “onus” but “power and freedom”.  Only allowing me to access the Public Data we have all paid for through applications and user interfaces developed by Government agencies is limiting my world to “what they think I want” and “how fast they can develop”.  By starting with opening up APIs you are letting me run alongside these agencies or even run ahead of them and letting me decide how, when and where I mash up this data.  For me this provides more freedom and also may free up some of the internal Government resources so they can focus on implementing these new Open Data policies instead of just trying to second guess what the increasingly diverse web user audiences really want.

As someone who runs an Innovation Lab I am aware how hard it is to predict what technologies and applications will actually be adopted and achieve wide diffusion.  For large Government Departments to also try to do this seems challenging at best.