Recently, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a Request for Information looking for ideas in how to create mobile applications for Veterans. The prompt for the main section of the RFI was: "Submit your creative ideas on how VA can incentivize industry to develop mobile applications." Here's a summary of our response:
Industry is looking for one thing: users. VA can spur the development of mobile applications for Veterans by giving industry access to new users. In the private sector, an approach that has proved successful is to build a platform that provides third-parties controlled, governed access to your users and their data, with their consent. Two examples of how launching such a platform led to industry investing in application development are Facebook and the IRS.
In 2007, Facebook was looking for ways to allow third-party developers to create applications for Facebook users. Industry was looking to get access to Facebook’s millions of users, to provide them with content and services. Facebook built the Facebook Platform, a set of APIs (application programming interfaces) and tools that let developers build applications that could access Facebook’s data, with a user’s consent. Entire companies and lines of business arose in response. These included venture capital firms focussed entirely on Facebook apps. The Facebook platform also drove growth of Facebook, helping them add millions of users to their service.
Another example of providing a platform to allow industry to create an ecosystem of applications is the IRS’s tax filing API. Rather than building a traditional website in-house, the IRS enabled third-parties like TurboTax, TaxCut, and others to create software for people to file their taxes. Some companies built software tailored to individuals and families. Others focused on power users such as accountants and business owners. Each segment had different design, usability, and functional requirements. IRS saw that their role was to provide the means by which we file our taxes, but not the entire end-user experience. The IRS avoided the expense and difficulty of trying to serve a large market with diverse needs. Creating an API helped the IRS better serve their constituents.
VA should consider building a platform for accessing Veteran data. The platform would provide industry access to a Veteran’s personal information and data, and let Veterans authorize trusted third-parties access to their information. For example, VA is the keeper of a Veteran’s service record. Developers could use this hypothetical Veteran API to let a Veteran authorize an application to access their service record on their behalf, to gain benefits or for other uses.
An “API for Veterans” is already under development at VA. Ad Hoc is the prime contractor on the Vets.gov Technical Support contract. In building Vets.gov, Ad Hoc has worked with the Digital Service at VA team to design a system that provides single, unified access to all VA’s benefits and services. Vets.gov is the means by which a Veteran interacts with the myriad of VA systems that provides them benefits. An API provides VA services, so that the Vets.gov web application has a consistent platform on which to build and access important VA data and services.
VA could open the Vets.gov API to third-party developers. This would allow them to build new applications and services to benefit Veterans. VA should not be in the business of developing software that attempts to serve all possible needs a Veteran might have. This all-in approach is expensive, and it can lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. Instead, VA should observe that it is the system of record for key Veteran data. VA should provide APIs that opens this data to third-parties, enabling developers to build new applications and experiences. This is a more economical approach as well. Providing these APIs would let VA become a platform for Veteran applications, much in the way Facebook became for application developers, or the IRS for tax preparation software. This is the incentive industry is looking for when it comes to developing technology on behalf of Veterans.