Over the last year, Singapore’s GovTech agency has built a platform to allow the entire public sector to share data in real-time, automatically.

The platform, called API Exchange or APEX, will allow officials to access datasets without having to manually submit requests and wait for approval. “This is really a different way for government as a whole to share data,” Chan Cheow Hoe, Government CIO and Deputy Chief Executive of GovTech, tells GovInsider.

APEX is the digital equivalent of a national electricity grid. When a new home is built, it just needs to be wired to the existing grid – rather than having to set up cables to link up to the power station every time.

What is the API Exchange?

APEX allows agencies to share data through APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces. But first, what’s an API? In the real world, APIs power the interactions between applications, data, and devices—and therefore, a great deal of modern life.

For example, if you are on booking website Kayak planning your next big getaway, the website will interact with the APIs of various airline websites to pull flight information. The website will request for information on seats, baggage fees and meals from each airline website’s API, which will return the responses—which will then be displayed to you.

Other examples include Grab Taxi, which pulls mapping data from Google Maps for a fee, and Paypal, which lets retail websites interact with it without having to create a separate digital checkout.

With Singapore’s APEX platform, agencies can access each other’s APIs in real-time and build services on top of it. This opens up the potential for data from different sources to be combined in new ways.

As the government builds predictive services, these APIs become more important. Services can quickly pull information from across governments, like the examples above. There are “thousands” of such systems in the government, and “the best way” to get information from them “is through APIs which are managed through a central platform”, Chan explains.

All the APIs connecting different agencies will have to go through this platform, like real time transport data that shows the location of buses. “What it does is that all the different ‘pipes’ that we built into each of the platforms go through a gateway,” he says.

How will it help?

APEX will cut the time taken to develop apps and websites. “It significantly accelerates the whole concept of building applications,” Chan says. When a new service is being built, it just needs to be integrated with the existing APIs. “If we build a new app, we don’t have to go out there and build so-called a data pipe on a dedicated basis – it can be reused,” he adds.

With this platform, the government will also be able to centrally manage data security across agencies. This means monitoring and setting security standards for APIs across the board, while individual agencies will be able to control who can access their data.

Where is it being used?

The platform will be available to the entire public sector by mid-2017. Singapore’s data sharing platform MyInfo, for instance, is powered by the API Exchange; this allows citizens to submit their data to government just once, and then provide permission to share that data with individual agencies when required.

Now, banks are also using APEX to integrate their services with the MyInfo platform. Citizens applying for loans and accounts will not have to submit physical copies of identity cards and income statements. Instead, they can grant the bank permission to access this data digitally from the government.

APEX could also allow agencies to share their data with the public via data.gov.sg. The APIs would ensure that their data is shared in real-time, giving the tech and business community access to more updated data.

Much of the work on the API gateway has gone on behind-the-scenes. But Singapore hopes it will bring more data to light.

Image by the Government Technology Agency of Singapore