What is an API?When a software programme has an API , it provides a mechanism by which external programs can communicate with it and even access or exchange data. APIs allows data exchange between websites, applications and organizations, while the data source remains in the same place. Applications built using APIs are commonly called ‘mashups’ – combining data and functionality from different programmes. For instance, APIs let you grab statistics from a website and use them on your own website. That way one does not have to access individually other websites, but can instantly combine data from different websites.
A good example is the API of the World Bank, where you can access 114 indicators from key data sources and 12,000 development photos. On its launch, the World Bank wrote “We are releasing this API because we believe this information can be mapped, visualized and mashed up in an unlimited number of ways that will help develop a better understanding of trends and patterns around key development issues.” (http://tinyurl.com/qstukb).
How can you use an API ?Programmers are usually required in connecting to an API and making it work. Depending on the combination, it then allows users to obtain different results, such as visualizations of data (http://geo.worldbank.org/). So, in the case of the World Bank, one could get the indicators from the least developing countries, compare them with the data of the United Nations (if they had such an API) and bring them all up on a map to highlight the differences. This could be achieved in real-time for different results, depending on the user’s request since the databases are continuously connected. (As an aside, the UN still has a great place for statistics: http://data.un.org).
Many of the best well-known APIs are offered by websites interested in extending their services. One example is the micro-blogging service Twitter, which allows an API to use its data (i.e. messages) for extended services (http://tinyurl.com/d6u3z4) or visualizations. (http://tinyurl.com/d55o62). Other websites that have followed this trend are The World's Energy Meter (AMEE), a climate change start-up, which offers an “open platform for measuring the energy consumption of everything”; and the Guardian newspaper, which offers since recently an API (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2009/mar/10/1). In this case one can generate results on keywords for articles and use them in different contexts. In the development field, many different data sources could be combined with more standardized information streams. Perhaps the most widely used of all is the Google Maps API.
How do APIs make a difference?
- They unleash a lot of creativity to better exploit the value of data, such as many third party services around Twitter and Google maps do.
- The combination of different data sources provides more accurate data, which is easier and comparable in real-time.
- They allow the collection of shared data and a better common use of the results.
- Data can be easily exchanged across organizations and projects. This generates substantial synergies.
- Rightly integrated data sources can provide added relevance in a specific context and are not hidden behind search results.
Finally, an API demands a very different approach when it comes to the management of open data but the ownership of these data still rests with the organization. Using APIs, the power of the data is unlocked for a myriad of uses so it is no wonder that the web2fordev community is coming up with ever more ingenious applications.
Author: Christian Kreutz