Justice’s API release signals bigger win for open source

The Justice Department’s first foray into the open data world with the launch of two APIs is noteworthy. But the underlying reason why DoJ could release the software code is really the story here.

First, the APIs, or application programming interfaces, that Justice released are codes for Web developers to build mobile apps and other software more easily to find press releases and job openings.

Nothing ground breaking in terms of APIs.

Skip Bailey, a former chief information officer at the DoJ’s Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the APIs are part of how Justice is moving to open source platform, Drupal. And that, he said, is the big accomplishment.

“Creating APIs are not a big effort and it takes a reasonable effort to convert the data, but a lot of the reason Justice could even release the APIs is because they moved to Drupal from HTML. So the APIs almost are the frosting on the cake,” said Bailey, now the director of Deloitte digital, in an interview with Federal News Radio. “There’s a big push across the government to modernize and move from unstructured to structured data. Justice did this to better manage their data.”

Bailey said open source platforms such as Drupal are gaining ground throughout government at a much more rapid pace than at any time over the last decade.

“I think the technology has maturity because even 12 years ago when I came into government. There was underlying policy of having no foreign code in your software. But I think people realized this was a ridiculous requirement because no system is without foreign code,” he said. “That has always been a problem with open source because the code comes from anywhere. But there is now a belief that there are ways to protect the code so you are not putting yourself in jeopardy. Also Justice is using open source for low risk, publicly available data. It’s a good place to start. I think it will snowball and you’ll see more and more of it. It’s a great move for the federal government.”

DoJ’s move to Drupal and other modernization efforts has been going on for several years.

Starting under former chief information officer Luke McCormack and continuing under new CIO Joe Klimavicz, Justice moved its website to a cloud, open source infrastructure and added search, sort and filter capabilities to thousands of Supreme Court briefs, legal opinions, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) court decisions, Congressional testimony and more.

All of DoJ’s components will migrate their public websites to the Drupal platform in the coming years.

“Website content that has been migrated to the new platform automatically adjusts to fit any device, including mobile devices and tablets, as well as desktops, making the Department’s information assets more accessible than ever before,” Klimavicz said in a release. “The open source platform also enables the department to refresh content rapidly, providing better access to information to the American public.”

Justice said it collaborated with GSA’s 18F organization to develop the APIs.

Bailey said the move to open source platforms has the potential to reduce agency costs because while labor rates may stay the same for operations and maintenance, there are no or small licensing fees.

This post is part of Jason Miller’s Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jason’s Notebook.