Hackney Council leverages experience of HMRC to build API Platform

In order to build a new income collection service for Hackney Council, they needed to unlock critical housing data from legacy applications. This involved fixing the plumbing and building an open-source API platform so the new income collection service and other digital services could consume this data.

The Central Digital and Data Office has released details of the project which kicked off in October 2017 and went live in 2019, receiving considerable implementation advice from HMRC, and leveraging digital solutions expertise from Made Tech and the AWS cloud platform. Hackney Council's API Playbook was updated in May 2021, and has been a key tool in educating users and getting developer buy-in.

Hackney Council wanted to build a public API platform using modern software development processes. This platform would be for developers and contain all the Hackney Council APIs, supported by a robust set of API standards. Widespread use of this platform would result in reduced development costs, better return on investment, and would enable services to develop a loosely coupled microservices architecture. That is, changes to one service would not affect other services.

HMRC's helping hand

Although Hackney Council’s Corporate ICT team had full management support for this project, they recognised that they did not yet have the skills and knowledge to start building the platform.

To start with, they spoke to HMRC about how to successfully implement a large-scale API platform in government. HMRC shared their knowledge on how HMRC implemented and maintained their API platform and their overall technical architecture, how HMRC developed their API service standards and what skills and capabilities Hackney Council needed to do the same.

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The council team also collaborated with various digital agency partners to research those partners’ API-first strategies and standards. From this, the council team realised that they needed to understand how to build APIs from both a user needs and data needs perspective.

The team also researched the technology code of practice to learn about applicable best practice. Once this research was complete, the team was ready to start choosing technology before building the platform.

Vendor selection

Hackney Council’s Corporate ICT team took an iterative approach to choosing the technology to build the API platform depending on the user and data needs. They looked at each solution’s benefits and drawbacks and changed their approach as necessary.

For example, after evaluating both Google Cloud and AWS cloud platforms, the team chose AWS. Hackney Council felt AWS suited their needs more, as it is very developer-friendly due to the variety of services provided.

Additionally, the pre-existing relationship with HMRC helped, as the HMRC delivery manager was able to set up meetings between the council team and AWS to answer questions. For example, the council team spoke with the AWS Solution Architecture team to make sure the council team were following the 5 pillars of the AWS Well-Architected Framework.

The team also made technology choices based upon their existing skills. The team of developers already had knowledge of .NET Core programming language skills, so they decided to build the platform using that language.

At the same time, the team learned from their digital agency partners about how different types of API (platform and service) would be appropriate for different use cases, depending on data and reusability needs.

Embedding an API-first mentality

Hackney Council’s API platform went live in January 2019. The council team won an award for API services, and the team were finalists at the AWS awards for City on Cloud. This platform brought both tangible and intangible benefits.

By working in the open and collaborating with multiple digital agencies, the team embedded an API-first strategy within service development, which saved time and money in the development process.

Since the platform went live, developers have been able to create APIs much more quickly and consistently by using the API playbook and reusing existing APIs such as the Person or Contact Details APIs.

Additionally, the wider developer community (including both Hackney Council and external developers) now recognises the value of working in the open, of collaboration, and of having defined API standards.

The developer community also has regular data and architecture meetups to build the community of practice for robust and secure platforms. Hackney Council iterates their API playbook once a year, and they released a new version in May 2021. In future, the API playbook will have a distribution list to alert users when the team publishes a new playbook.

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