The Open API Universe at NASA

| One way that NASA data can be made more available online is through an “application programming interface” or API. While the name may be intimidating, you probably use APIs every day. APIs bring us real-time news, weather, and photosharing.

NASA has a LOT of interesting data. NASA’s commitment to open data expands the audience for the vast body of knowledge captured in nearly 100 years of U.S. aeronautics and space data. Developers, technologists, entrepreneurs, citizen scientists and many others can contribute directly to the exploration of space and Earth by helping to create new ways of looking at this data. Additionally, the release of administrative and procedural information from within NASA enables researchers and analysts to understand more about the inner workings of NASA as well as allow our own employees to better understand other functions of our Agency. We are continually working to improve accessibility to this data and incentivizing the use of government data by citizens. One way that NASA data can be made more available online is through an “application programming interface” or API. While the name may be intimidating, you probably use APIs every day. APIs bring us real-time news, weather, and photosharing. APIs feed the content to many of your favorite website or mobile applications. In the past few years, APIs have experienced an exponential increase in popularity and usage.

Earlier today, the U.S. General Services Administration’s DigitalGov University hosted a webinar titled “Case Studies from the Federal Register, NASA, and GSA” with the purpose of discussing the use of API’s in government. Below is the short presentation based on some examples from NASA.

What is an API?

An API, or “Application Program Interface”, is a set of routines and protocols that provide building blocks for computer programmers and application developers to build software applications. In its simplest form, an API makes raw data accessible in a machine readable format so you can create any application you can dream of. In the past, APIs were largely associated with computer operating systems and desktop applications. In recent years though, we have seen the emergence of Web APIs (Web Services).

What is NASA doing in regards to APIs?

For NASA, data is at the heart of what we do but NASA is really just getting started in it’s mission to expand the API universe. We recognize that there is a need to organize and make sense of the ever-increasing amount of tools and data catalogs that are publicly available on NASA’s many websites, and so we created a directory that lists the publicly available datasets and serves to streamline the process for posting these datasets on data.gov. The directory includes information and direct links to hundreds of datasets. In August 2011, we launched a data API around the online archive of NASA data sets. The data.nasa.gov API provides a RESTful interface, with responses in JSON for the NASA data archives.

But this is just the beginning.

A Wide Open Field

There is a wealth of data available at data.nasa.gov. We have a lot of work to do to build more meaningful, focused APIs that deliver the many kinds of data we produce, and we would love your help! There is a huge opportunity for anyone with interest to help NASA make its data more accessible and derive new meaning from existing datasets through APIs. Whatever you can dream of doing with this public data, it’s yours to use, and we encourage you to get involved.

As part of NASA’s response to the Digital Government Strategy, we are charged with creating at least two new APIs in the coming year. We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on what data you would like us to focus on. We also hope to create more opportunities for YOU to get directly involved. We’ll be offering a few new API related challenges at upcoming mass collaboration events this next year, including Random Hacks of Kindness or the second International Space Apps Challenge.

Crowdsourcing API Development

The idea of developing an API to access an already complicated data set or service may sound overwhelming. The good news is that the most creative work often comes from outside the walls of government. Living in the information age has its benefits and one of them is that there are thousands of people around the world who can help you. In April, we issued a few API related challenges at the International Space Apps Challenge and the results were impressive. A virtual team of three developers created ExoAPI – a powerful tool that provides access to exoplanet data through a simple RESTful API. The video below is not only inspirational, but serves as an example of what can happen when we engage citizens in NASA’s mission.


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