There are already certain basic APIs for census tracts, school districts, energy costs, a range of geo data, zip codes, etc.

What I'm wondering is what would be other fundamental web services that the government should make available? It would be good to highlight what agencies should target.

(Disclaimer: I am the Sr. API Strategist for GSA)

  • 1
    What does "basic" mean here? May 17, 2013 at 15:46
  • Elemental, I suppose. APIs that would serve as useful base APIs to a wide range of mashups.
    – Gray B.
    May 24, 2013 at 20:45

6 Answers 6


Getting the USPS to open up basic information about ZIP codes, either through an open API or even better as a bulk download, would be a big help to a lot of us dealing with geo problems. The ZIP code API you link to is a great example of how not to do it. It has so many restrictions on its use that it's not possible to use it with most open data sources - "User agrees to use the USPS Web site, APIs and USPS data to facilitate USPS shipping transactions only.". You have to phone the postal service before they'll even enable your access!

The US Census does a great job of giving us their best guesses at ZIP code locations, but it's missing a large proportion of rural areas, and the boundaries aren't very accurate.

  • I know I'm late to this but better late than never. There are a number of sources, static lists as well as APIs that redistribute the official USPS zipcode data. That data is then available for any use you like (within reason). It is no longer subject to the USPS Terms of Service. Here is the Jan2016 data file: dropbox.com/s/jrl0llk2l7nof66/zipcodes-jan2016.txt.zip?dl=0. Most current version always available upon request (no charge). [Full disclosure - I work for an address validation company called SmartyStreets, so I deal with this kind of question all the time)
    – Jeffrey
    Mar 9, 2016 at 19:02

Allow people to annotate / correct the descriptions of data sets being served.

I know, it'd be really, really messy as you'd have to have someone moderate it, so that there's some review process before accepting new content, but I took a look yesterday at beta for the geodata portal for data.gov, and as best I can tell, information was ingested from the GCMD which includes more than just earth data.

Because solar is a driver in earth systems processes, it's sometimes listed with earth science data, but because solar physics isn't really earth data, the metadata used to describe it is near useless for the solar and heliophysics communities, and I assume questionable use for earth science.

The attempts to link to the data have missed that the are new tools and descriptions, and have missed obvious links to the documentation. (which I assume would be desired, even if it's not the actual data).

  • 1
    Great idea. We do have the ability to comment on datasets on Data.gov, but have been seriously looking at the way to allow developers to: (1) submit a correction to the agency metadata or dataset; (2) share a modified dataset in addition to the agency data; (3) crowdsourcing the categorization and/or tagging of the datasets. May 16, 2013 at 17:09
  • @JeanneHolm : depending on the level of effort, you might have 'official' information that's maintained by the agency, PI or other responsible official ... but there may also be good documentation that could be provided by the general public (who wouldn't use the same jargon, and might not have access to the same tools (almost all of our stuff depends on IDL, which has significant cost; the free runtime can't be used))
    – Joe
    May 16, 2013 at 17:26
  • Exactly @Joe, and as long as the attribution is clear I don't see why we can't all share that content on the Data.gov dataset page for easier collaboration. May 16, 2013 at 17:30

What I suspect would be really useful would be a single API that could be used with all the federal district and circuit courts. As it is now, I'm told, the courts are a wild hodgepodge of individualism.

  • Yes and no. The PACER system unites many of them in access control and billing, though they have different branding and I believe there's not universal access. But since the question specifies "Federal" I believe everything is covered by PACER, though divided by circuit. There is a top-level search functionality. But an API would indeed be nice.
    – Don
    May 16, 2013 at 17:27

Having an API or database that contains the list of official URLs for local municipalities would be very useful. I posted a question about it "Is there a list, database or API that contains the URLs for United States city and town websites?". This would make it much easier for those of us that scrape and crawl city websites, school or water districts to keep our lists up to date and reduce costs for finding and maintaining the URLs. Not all cities and towns use the .gov or .us TLDs, very few of the 170 Vermont towns that we currently monitor at NearbyFYI use .us domains.

I know that the Sunlight Foundation is also starting to become interested in local government information and we're likely to work with them to help collect the URLs. If the federal government provided this with the census data it would save us quite a bit of time.

  • This is also something that Code for America might be interested in building. They have fellows in many cities. May 18, 2013 at 20:58

I would like to see a single, simple API for finding one's polling place based on one's home address (presumably for national elections only, not for local elections). Ideally it would also have associated metadata such as the polling site's hours of operation, parking information, a list of languages that the ballot is available in (it often varies by locality), links to mapping providers showing the location, links to the relevant state and/or city registrar's website, etc. I believe something similar was created by the Democratic Party for use in the 2012 national election, but it would be nice for this to be an official government-maintained API, and not tied to any party or organization.

Open source code, and a simple way for municipalities or individuals to browse and contribute data to the system, would be very nice.

(On preview: it occurs to me that this code should be reusable by municipalities and states so they can run this API from their own servers with their own data for their own smaller elections and primaries.)

  • 1
    How does the Google Civics API work for this? developers.google.com/civic-information/docs/us_v1 [Disclaimer - I am a Sr. API Strategist at GSA]
    – Gray B.
    Jun 5, 2013 at 6:01
  • I work for state/local gov't -- the problem with this suggestion isn't lack of API, it's lack of data. It's rather difficult to provide an API to look up an address when the definition of "address" itself is in question.
    – aNullValue
    Jul 21, 2013 at 19:38

Since you work for GSA I'll limit my thoughts to what I think is GSA data. In general a flat file (.csv or .txt) is much more useful than an API, but when an agency isn't willing to make bulk data available an API is better than nothing. That said, I think a good guiding principal would be, if you were trying to replicate all of the things that GSA does as a third party developer, what would your APIs look like?

  • A list of all 'excluded' or 'barred' vendors, or people if such a thing exists. Presumably there's some folks who you won't buy from because they've delivered subpar goods / services in the past. This must include a link to some sort of vendor id / D+B number etc.

  • A reference list of all vendors in all of your databases (including both active and inactive ones), including name, physical location, contact information, and some sort of description of their specialty. Whatever additional information you maintain on them should be included--like, if there's a geographic scope to the goods / services they can provide. Are they a female or minority-owned business (I believe that's something you would track). Inclusion of D+B number would be helpful. Also subsidiary information. Is the vendor a subsidiary of someone else?

  • A reference list of all goods / services that you can help(?) agencies purchase (purchase on behalf of?), with all applicable descriptive categories.

  • A complete 'product' list that includes the ids for the vendor, the product, and all pricing information you have, to the extent that this is practicable; if there's a bulk discount, for instance, what is it?

  • A list of all purchases made, including the vendor, the buyer, and the price. If it's a service that's provided on an ongoing basis, this ideally would include the status (planning / ongoing / completed ) as well as any price adjustments (change orders).

  • Travel information. What are per diem reimbursements for each city. What lodging options are available for federal employees there?

  • Complete data on the users / payments of the Public Buildings Service. What space is leased / rented and what revenue does that bring to GSA (if indeed it is counted as revenue towards GSA).

  • Space available through PBS. If there's space available, what kind is it and where? What restrictions can be placed on it (i.e federal employees only?).

This isn't data, but is a good use for an API: a way for vendors to submit their services / goods. Presumably there's a very specific process you use, but if there was an API to back this third party developers could help link new vendors to buyers. RFP-EZ is doing interesting work along these lines.

  • GSA is spearheading the government-wide implementation of the Open Data Directive, so I don't think this question was meant to solicit GSA-specific answers. May 22, 2013 at 17:56
  • Yeah, but that's not reasonably answerable. Note the questioner doesn't specify federal government (or even US)...
    – jfenton
    May 22, 2013 at 18:14
  • Hm? The question title is "What would be particularly useful basic APIs for the US Federal Government to offer?" May 22, 2013 at 18:26
  • Hah! True! Still not reasonably answerable, but yr totally right!
    – jfenton
    May 22, 2013 at 19:02
  • Thanks a bunch, this is great. As a part of the Open Data Policy, I'll be engaging individual agencies to better publish their data and will include these in talks with with GSA itself.
    – Gray B.
    May 24, 2013 at 20:53

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