Today is brought to you by Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).
If you’re a marketer, administrator or someone whose role involves the sharing of data and information internally or with other businesses, these little pieces of genius will change your life. Before you glaze over in anticipation of another geek tech delivery, pinch yourself, because we’re going to keep this simple.
So, what exactly is an API?
An API is simply a piece of code that enables connectivity between individual computers or software for instant, easy and low cost sharing of data. It is the unsung technology hero that makes the information we seek in our daily lives immediately accessible. The apps on our smart phones, for instance, are almost certainly talking to APIs in delivering the information we want.
Think of an API as being like an armoured messenger van. Out on the information highway, there are many hundreds of thousands of these vans (APIs) tearing about, retrieving and delivering information securely from one computer or piece of software to another.
In the old days, the only way for organisations to share or move large amounts of data was via floppy disks, DAT (Digital Audio Tape), FTPs (File Transfer Protocols) or even good old hard copies. The procedures involved in setting up information sharing services were even more laborious. Let’s talk about the weather as an example.
Say you’re the owner of a multi-store retail business. To help with your sales forecasting and identifying any correlation between retail sales and weather, you decide to set up weekly updates on weather data, including sunshine hours, temperatures, rainfall, humidity, and wind speed. Ten years ago, implementing this would have involved phoning the weather authority, setting up a physical meeting to discuss your requirements, scoping the job, determining security requirements, being quoted for the job and charged handsomely for the service.
This setting-up process could take weeks and involve many hours of people time. What’s worse, you would have to endure the same tedium down the track if you opened new stores or decided to add more weather data to the feed.
APIs have replaced these long-winded manual methods. And once set up, they are easily adaptable for changing information requirements. Continuing our weather example above – if there was an API in place, the initial set up of weekly updates would simply have been a case of getting permission to use the weather authority’s API and then connecting to it. Adding a new store or requesting extra data later on could all be done from your end by updating the API. Depending on your software, this could happen automatically or it may require your IT person to change the API information request. The key point here is that is that there’s no extra setup cost for the additional information and only a marginal increase (if any) in data charges.
If you need further demonstration of APIs in action, look no further than Google Maps. It offers a massively popular API that enables third party applications to access its mapping and location services. Or think about travel. The global smartphone phenomenon has put the planning and booking of travel at our fingertips and in doing so has opened up a world of digital opportunities for entrepreneurs and developers. TripAdvisor and Expedia are just two companies offering APIs that empower developers to access and share information on hotels, restaurants, airlines and other travel experiences.
APIs are the domain of developers. Depending on the complexity of the business or the application, developing an API can involve a few hours or an ongoing programme of updating, maintenance and development. Most of us don’t need to understand the intricacies of how they are created, only what they can do and where they can be applied in making the flow of information easier, faster and cheaper.
So, when it comes to having conversations about APIs, don’t get caught up in the technical detail if you’re not a technical person. Just make sure you understand the power of APIs and their potential in helping you develop new business opportunities or automate manual tasks.
- APIs enable connectivity between computers and software for sharing data
- They are flexible and adaptable, so future changes in informational needs are easily accommodated
- They remove the need for ongoing human involvement in setting up and maintaining information flows
- They are easier and faster to set up than manual alternatives, and the costs of serving and receiving information are much lower