IP Australia eyes APIs to build ‘digital marketplaces’

The administrator of Australia’s intellectual property regime wants software developers to leverage its data to build new applications

“I, Andrew Brown McKenzie, of 20 Harold Street, South Melbourne, in the State of Victoria, Commonwealth of Australia, Shipwright, hereby declare this invention, and the manner in which it is to be performed, to be fully described and ascertained in and by the following statement:–

“A number of serious accidents have occurred in connection with the use of the Westinghouse brake, and from long experience in the railway service I have ascertained one cause of such accidents and have devices the present means of overcoming it with extreme simplicity and economy."

So opens the first application filed under Australia’s Commonwealth Patents Act 1903.

The patent — lodged on 13 February 1904 — was for ‘Improvements in air leak preventative for Westinghouse and like brakes’. It was filed at the Australian Patent Office in Melbourne, designated application #1904000001.

Almost 115 years later, and IP Australia, the descendent of the Patent Office, is receiving tens of thousands of patent applications annually — and even more applications for trademarks, alongside thousands of applications for design rights and a few hundred for plant breeder’s rights.

Not only has the scale of IP activity changed since McKenzie sought more than a century ago to protect his idea for improving rail safety — the way people interact with Australia’s IP administrator bears little resemblance to the shipwright’s experience.

These days most interactions with IP Australia are digital. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, that is a relatively recent development for the agency: Just four years ago, only some 12 per cent of its customers used digital channels. Now, however, that figure is 99.6 per cent, according to the agency’s chief digital officer, Damian Guiffre.

A digital transformation program at the Commonwealth agency has helped cut contact centre costs by two-thirds, and some 38 per cent of enquiries are now deal with by virtual assistants.

“We've had a lot of success, we've done some really great things, but we're just embarking on the next stage of our digital transformation now,” Guiffre told Computerworld. That next stage is “really about modernising things and bringing us up into up in line with what a modern customer expects from any kind of digital service,” the CDO said.

Key to that will be a deep-going revamp of the agency’s digital channels.

“Our existing transactional channels are very old and very outdated,” the CDO said. “We've got a web interface where people can file things and we've also got a B2B channel, but we haven't really seen uptake like we would like in our B2B channel.”

In addition the agency has had “very mixed customer feedback,” about the web interface.

“We're not providing them with the best user experience that we can, the best interfaces we can and the best information we can, so that they can file better quality rights,” Guiffre said.

IP Australia is planning to both re-engineer its backend systems and offer new ways for customers to interact with it. The idea is to link-up disjointed legacy systems as well as expose APIs to help create “API marketplaces” — allowing people to build their own offerings on top of the agency’s services.

At the moment the agency has “hundreds of applications all around the place,” Guiffre said. “We've got a couple of programs of work to try to rationalise these applications, but we're really taking an API-led approach to connect our applications across various disparate legacy systems. So [we have] programs to consolidate applications, but also connect them.”

APIs will underpin IP Australia’s customer-facing systems, including its public website. Guiffre said the rebuild will also allow IP Australia services to be embedded in other government processes.

“We want to also position ourselves as [part of a] whole of government pipeline,” the CDO said. “We want to be able to expose our APIs so that they can fit in with cross-government processes.”

The idea is that processes such as trademark registration could be conducted while people are registering a business name, for example.

“We want to be able to move to a world that is a bit more seamless and simple for a business, small business in particular,” Guiffre said. “Having these digital assets and being able to expose them when and where it makes sense is where we want to get to.”

The agency plans to make APIs available to IP attorney firms as well as third-party software developers that want to build new applications around IP Australia’s data and services.

“We've got a lot of data and a lot of services; there's a lot of value in people being able to create applications on top of, expose, and create new ways for people to file things with IP Australia,” Guiffre said. “That's something that we're really keen to explore and move towards — these digital marketplaces. We want to be enthusing software developers and the public about the work we're doing in this space.

“We want to bring them along for the journey and engage them early in terms of articulating this value proposition to them and saying, ‘Hey we're building these new services that we're going to expose, so there's an opportunity to build software on top of them and create value for your company.’”

MuleSoft has been chosen as an API management platform, replacing an ageing integration tool at the agency. Guiffre said that MuleSoft would help deliver “end-to-end visibility around security, logging, monitoring” as IP Australia releases APIs.

“To be honest it's also a tool that our developers get really excited about,” he added. “Their enthusiasm for the product is actually really helpful because it means they want to engage, they want to embrace, they want to pick up the new tools and the new stuff really rapidly. It's helping us drive a more modern operating model internally — we're moving away from a lot of our traditional approaches and moving to more continuous delivery and DevOps approaches.”

At the moment IP Australia is in a “pretty hybrid state,” he added. “We’re trying to shift a lot of our applications and infrastructure to the cloud, but we're also cognizant of the fact that we still have a data centre downstairs for the time being...

“So we've got this hybrid state where we need to be doing a lot of containerising of our applications. We’re actually moving now to a point where we can get away from these large monolithic deployments every three or six months.”

The formal API-focused program of work began in July.

“I'm keen to drive on and deliver customer value as quick as I can but we need to get the backend right to support it and to move quickly,” Guiffre said.

“We've started by focusing on a few of the high priority internal pieces while doing a bit of the customer-facing things. We've just started release a very early service to a few of our known customers at the moment to get some very early feedback and start to validate some assumptions.”

The agency is “very early on in what is in essence a three-year program of work,” he said, but added that IP Australia hopes to have its first public API in production by the end of the year.

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