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Aug 21, 2012

Tech News: Building an App? Consider Using the New US Census Bureau API

As smartphones continue to get smarter, the information presented to the end user is becoming more powerful and pertinent. But with each generation of apps, the demand for sources of on-tap information seems to grow at an even faster pace. So far it has been 3rd parties that have taken public data and transformed it into a viable resource. But that is now changing, and the federal government is getting into the business of providing a ready source of information for mobile and web apps. The latest example is from the US Census Bureau, and from the looks of things they are doing it right. In fact, they even have a gallery of web apps, which currently shows two apps built to serve as an example of usage.[1] Online API To access the US Census Bureau information, a public API has been established. Typically, access will consist of an HTTP GET request, and the resulting information will be returned as a two dimensional JSON array. In other words, it is easy to use, and should fit into most development paradigms without a lot of extra work. While it is public, each query does need to contain an access key specific to that developer.  Getting a key is a very simple process and it only involves visiting a web page, plugging in the name and email address, and agreeing to the terms of service. After you get the email, just click on the link to activate. Two Sets of Data Available The US Census Bureau is currently allowing access to two sets of data. First is the 2010 census data, which covers such data distribution as age, sex, race, population, home ownership, etc.  That is, it allows access to the data you would expect to see in a typical census information dump. The second set of data included in the API is the 2006-2010 American Community Survey. This set will provide socio economic information, including such information as education, income, and employment.  This information should prove to be very valuable for many areas of app development. Developer Friendly Not only is the US Census Bureau providing an easy to use API to access their data in developer’s apps, they are also providing a developer forum to help with development issues.[2] The Bureau is also encouraging the sharing of ideas between developers through the forum; making it a great resource for building US Census Bureau powered apps. Greater Transparency Leads to Creative Use of Data The US Census Bureau data API is a great example of transparency in government, and hopefully it is a shade of things to come. By letting developers have direct access to collected data sets, the end result should be the creation of creative apps, using the data in ways that it has not been used to date.  Census Bureau Director Robert Groves sees this vision clearly: “We hope to see many apps grow out of the Census API, as this opens up our statistics beyond traditional uses. The API gives data developers in research, business and government the means to customize our statistics into an app that their audiences and customers need." [3] No doubt having the data in a readily consumable form for an app will lead to its use. The data could find itself in use with apps ranging from commuting patterns for a given city (handy for a travel app) to owners and rental information in a neighborhood (handy for both potential business apps and real estate solutions). The possibilities are really just being tapped. By removing the difficulty in app access of data, the US Census Bureau is opening a world of information to the average developer. In time that data will no doubt be put to use in a variety of applications, greatly empowering the end user. And if it becomes a trend, with more government data stockpiles opened up for app access, then the app of tomorrow really might be something that was impossible just a few short years ago. And that really does make the typical smartphone, for the lack of a better term, smarter.
[1] Access Data with Census APIs [2] API Developers Forum [3] New Online Tool Gives Public Wider Access to Key U.S. Statistics