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Business.gov Makes Public Data More Accessible Through Web Services

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Business.gov Makes Public Data More Accessible Through Web Services

By StuartR
Published: January 28, 2010

You may have heard the terms web service, API, mashup, and dataset. There has been a lot of talk about these because of the recent Open Government Directive (OGD) that the Office of Management and Budget released in December. The directive was in response to President Obama’s call for transparency and open government when he first took office in early 2009. But what does the OGD have to do with web services? And what are they anyway?

Web services refer to open software systems designed to support machine-to-machine interaction over a network. That means that a web service makes it possible for your computer to get specific information from another computer. The web service uses an Application Programming Interface (API) to enable the interaction between the two computers. Basically, the API controls how your computer accesses the information in a dataset on the other computer. That information can then be mashed up (combined) with other information.

This may sound like a lot of gibberish, but it just means that your computer and the computer that has the information you want have a way of talking to each other. One of the goals of the OGD is to publish government information online to increase accountability, promote informed participation by the public, and create economic opportunity. By requiring agencies to create web services, the government is slowly giving the public access to information in a methodical and logical way.

Creating Tools that Business Owners Can Use

Giving the public raw data is like giving a hungry person a raw egg: they could eat it, but it wouldn’t be very useful or appealing. Instead, a web service gives any developer the ability to create something considerably more powerful than the raw data; much like a great chef can turn a raw egg into a soufflé.

By combining data from several government agencies or from other sources, new tools can be created to benefit small business owners. It’s important to remember that the OGD encourages citizens to collaborate and come up with their own plans for using the data beyond what the government has done. The idea is: the more accessible government data becomes, the greater the number of people who will work with it, and the better the use of that data.

Business.gov Opens Up Its Data

The Business.gov team started making its data more readily accessible early in 2009 just after the President made his call of openness and transparency. The process required the team to review its data and determine what would be valuable to the public. We first examined the data that Busines.gov visitors request most often. We identified four datasets that we believe are the most useful and compelling as web services: Loans & Grants Search, Business Licenses & Permits, City and County Web Data and Recommended Sites.

Why should you care? This is a terrific example of how Business.gov is becoming more open and is providing small business owners new opportunities to improve their businesses. Our goal is to make quality, government information readily available. By creating web services, we give the public the ability to improve upon Business.gov’s existing tools to further benefit small business owners. More chefs in more kitchens means more opportunities for business owners.

Search Tools for Small Business Owners

Data from Business.gov can be combined with other government data to create even more powerful tools. For example, the Business.gov Loans & Grants Search web service provides information on federal, state and local financing programs for which a small business owner might be eligible. We use the underlying data to power the Loans & Grants Search Tool on Business.gov itself.

If this financing data is mashed up with information about historically underutilized business zones (HUBZones) from the SBA, a new tool can be created that helps HUBZone businesses find loans. If this data is further mashed up with Google Maps, a developer can create web pages with maps depicting HUBZones and the available financing for that zone. The possibilities for using this data are only limited by what the public can imagine.

The Business Licenses & Permits web service provides data on federal, state and local licenses, permits and registrations required to legally operate a business. Similarly, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs provides a Business Toolbox on their website for finding licensing information, but does not include federal or state results. The developers of the New York City search tool might use Business.gov’s Business Licenses & Permits web service to augment their local search results giving small business owners more powerful results than either of the tools by itself.

Important URLs for Small Businesses Owners

Business.gov’s City and County Web Data web service is a mashup of state, county and local URLs with information from the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). This mashup provides developers access to URLs from thousands of government websites that are cross-referenced by their standardized name, zip code, latitude and longitude. A developer can further mash this data with information from local Small Business Development Centers to create an application that helps business owners find resources based on their location. Imagine having all of the small business resources you need in one place!

Finally, the Recommended Sites web service provides prioritized search results containing links to high-quality government websites relevant to small business owners. For example, a request for “tax forms” returns links to pages on IRS.gov and Business.gov that specifically help small businesses file and pay their taxes. A developer might use this data to create a mobile app that combines links to these URLs with local tax schedules. When waiting for the bus, why not check to see what federal, state and local tax forms are due next?

Build Better Tools for Small Business

In addition to the requirement to publish government information, the OGD also calls upon agencies to improve the quality of government information, institutionalize a culture of open government, and enable a policy framework for open government. Web services are just the beginning. As the team continues to improve the various resources on Business.gov, we hope that developers will use these web services to develop even better tools for small business owners.

If you have a question on how you to use the web services API please visit the Business.gov Web Services Discussion forum. And if you create a great tool using the Business.gov data please let us know!

Message Edited by StuartR on 01-29-2010 02:49 PM

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