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Foreign Office endorses 'free' Microsoft travel advice API

Civil servants not equipped to build mobile apps

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The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has endorsed an application programming interface created by Microsoft, after the software giant took the government department's RSS feeds and cobbled together an API.

While a Commons committee is busily scrutinising the government's IT procurement record, the Foreign Office has been getting excited about Microsoft "experts" re-delivering information "at low cost or no cost to us".

The FCO's head of digital diplomacy, Jimmy Leach, penned a back-slapping blog post yesterday that applauded Microsoft's efforts.

"Civil servants aren’t, with the best will in the world, the best people to build mobile applications, for example," he said. "If we paid for developers to do it for us, we couldn’t afford much at the moment (we certainly couldn't run to the second third or fourth iterations that might be necessary), and we couldn’t add the variety of information that could make such an app compelling – we can’t book flight tickets, share reviews, that sort of thing."

He pointed out that Directgov Innovate had already produced an API providing travel advice from the Foreign Office that developers could use to mash up.

However, he felt the need to big up "the nice people at Microsoft [who] have taken our RSS feeds, run them through their clever Azure data market and produced an API".

Leach added that the FCO had not been involved in Microsoft's development of its API.

"Our feeds are there for people to use, and they used them," he said. "For Microsoft, it's a way of showing off their product, for us it's more progress on the delivery strategy. Even better, it's already been used (not entirely coincidentally perhaps) to create an app for Windows Phone, now available in their MarketPlace, and free."

Microsoft partner Active Web Solutions (AWS) built an app that tied FCO information together with data from GapYear.com, which according to Leach created a "useful, classy, targeted and networked" app that was "so much better than anything we could have done".

In July last year, the BBC reported that the government had spent tens of thousands of pounds developing Apple iPhone applications.

One of the apps developed for the iPhone had been – yep, you guessed it – a travel advice app from the Foreign Office, so perhaps having an FCO diplomat writing cutesy stories about those "nice" MS folk is a small price to pay to get the same thing created for free on Microsoft's Windows Phone 7. ®

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