When “public infrastructure” is mentioned, typically people think of roads, bridges, rails, dams, power plants, city lights. These are all enablers, publicly funded/owned/managed (not necessarily all of these), which allow the larger public to do business and to cover basic needs. Public infrastructure is sometimes free, but not always (you pay electricity bills and toll fees; and of course someone will rightly point out that nothing is free, because we pay it through taxes, but that’s not the point).
In the digital age, we can think of some additional examples to “public infrastructure”. The most obvious one, which has a physical aspects, is fiber-optic cables. Sometimes they are publicly owned (especially in rural areas), and their goal is to provide internet access, which itself is an enabler for business and day-to-day household activities. More and more countries, municipalities and even smaller communities invest in owning fiber-optic cables in order to make sure there’s equal access to the internet. But cables are still physical infrastructure.
Something entirely digital, that is increasingly turning into public infrastructure, are open government APIs. They are not fully perceived as public infrastructure, and exist as such only in the heads of a handful of policymakers and IT experts, but in essence they are exactly that – government-owned infrastructure that enables businesses and other activities.
But let me elaborate. Open APIs let the larger public access data and/or modify data that is collected and/or centralized and/or monitored by government institutions (central or local). Some examples:
- Electronic health infrastructure – the Bulgarian government is building a centralized health record as well as centralized e-prescriptions and e-hospitalization. It is all APIs, where private companies develop software for hospitals, general practitioners, pharmacies, labs. Other companies may develop apps for citizens to help them improve their health or match them with nutrition and sport advice. All of that is based on open APIs (following the FHIR standard) and allows for fair competition, while managing access to sensitive data, audit logs and most importantly – collection in a centralized store.
- Toll system – we have a centralized road toll system, which offers APIs (unfortunately, via an overly complicated model of intermediaries) which supports multiple resellers to sell toll passes (time-based and distance-based). This allows telecoms (through apps), banks (through e-banking), supermarkets, fleet management companies and others to offer better UI and integrated services.
- Tax systems – businesses will be happy to report their taxes through their ERP automatically, rather than manually exporting and uploading, or manually filling data in complex forms.
- E-delivery of documents – Bulgaria has a centralized system for electronic delivery of documents to public institutions. That system has an API, which allows third parties to integrate and send documents as part of more complex services, on behalf of citizens and organizations.
- Car registration – car registers are centralized, but opening up their APIs would allow car (re)sellers to handle all the paperwork on behalf of their customers, online, by a click of a button in their internal system. Car part owners can fetch data about registered cars per brand and model in order to make sure there are enough spare parts in stock (based on the typical lifecycle of car parts).
Core systems and central registers with open APIs are digital public infrastructure that would allow a more seamless, integrated state. There are a lot of details to be taken into account – access management and authentication (who has the right to read or write certain data), fees (if a system is heavily used, the owning institution might charge a fee), change management and upgrades, zero downtime, integrity, format, etc.
But the policy that I have always followed and advocated for is clear – mandatory open APIs for all government systems. Bureaucracy and paperwork may become nearly invisible, hidden behind APIs, if this principle is followed.
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