Thing is, when you’re building an API – doesn’t matter if you’re the BBC, government or a start-up – it’s so very tempting to add the line ‘only for non-commerical use’. It was the line that allowed us to pursued people at the BBC to release data via backstage. It’s a really handy way to help management understand that releasing data isn’t a threat to your profit line or to society. Thing is though – it’ll only take you so far – actually it’ll start to hinder development.
We all know that the best way to allow access to your API is to keep it as easy as possible – making developers apply, and then wait, for a key before they can start messing with your stuff is a sure fire way to stop people getting groovy with your data. When I was at Lonely Planet we developed three levels of developer access – the journey to getting these levels lasted a year and many meetings with legal and management. Finally we got to a point where there was a way for developers to instantly access data, but then have a path where they could make money from their work – ultimately the reason that people will want to move beyond the initial itch and building of groovy cool stuff to the larger scale making some money kinda stuff.
Free and easy access. Police it by using call limits if you like – but don’t require registration or any kind of authorisation – let people quickly get to your stuff and let them play. Feel free to add ‘non commercial use’ to this access – but if you’ve limited the api calls – why bother?
Semi-hard. Ask people to register. Give them access to a more robust API, or a larger number of calls – but essentially let people get on with it. If they want to try to make money – let them – they’ll soon be in touch if the money is pouring in and they want to take things to the next level.
The next level. Solid, production ready API. No limits and working hand-in-hand with internal developers.
The great thing about letting people make money is that they’ll make you money in return – you don’t have to spend months locked away in an R&D lab – but more importantly you’ll see stuff you’ve never even thought of. It’s the Hack Day theory – Hack Days are a pressure cooker for innovation, an intensified period of R&D that months of traditional work could not replicate.
But what if you’re a not-for profit? The BBC? Government? Well then… it’s even more important that you let people make money from public data. Government data has a problem – it’s really not cool – it attracts amazing developers who want to make the world a better place. But what about those developers who want to make the world a better place and need to put a meal on the table? It’s either direct subsidy – or let them build something that they can sell – not the data itself perhaps – but a service built on that data.