May 5, 2010

The untapped power of APIs

The power of APIs from JD Lasica on Vimeo.

How you can let outsiders mine your data for gold

JD LasicaIn tech circles, the importance of APIs are a given. Flickr, Twitter, Google Maps and Facebook all became dominant in their sectors partly through the genius of releasing open APIs to outside developers.

I’ll let our sister site, Socialbrite, handle the definition of APIs, but here are some examples to put it in concrete terms:

See the Flickr widget there in the sidebar to the right? It contains an API that allows this WordPress blog to display the images from Flickr in a certain way.

See the Twitter conversations widget there on the right? It contains an API that allows this blog to pull and display Twitter tweets containing certain keywords.

See the Facebook and Twitter logos at the bottom of comments on this story page? It contains an API that lets people log in via those social sites to leave a comment on this blog. Same for the Social media jobs widget and Upcoming calendar widget in’s sidebar.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that almost nobody in the media world (outside of the techies), nobody in the nonprofit world and few in the business world understand the importance of this — and the untapped power that lies in creating your own APIs. In my talk at NewComm Forum 11 days ago I included a discussion of how news publications should get their hands on public data related to public schools, public hospitals, Census figures and the like — and release the raw data, not just the resulting stories, to the public.

A well-structured API can let outsiders:

• create a tool or widget that slices and dices public data in surprising new ways, bringing additional meaning and value to information that your own staff may not be aware of;

• create an app that displays specific sets of your content in interesting new ways — say, optimized for a mobile device;

• bring greater context to your data or content, comparing it to data provided by others in your sector;

• do lots more. But let Greg Elin tell it.

I’ve bumped into Greg often over the years during his tenure at the Sunlight Foundation. Now he’s chief technology officer of United Celebral Palsy.

APIs: When simple is better

At a recent retreat in Marin County, Greg and I started chatting about APIs when I whipped out my Kodak zi8 recorder (on loan from Kodak) and captured this high-quality video of him explaining the value of APIs and how organizations and businesses can put them to good use.

“You’re turning your assets into little tiny Legos that other people can use to build new things.”
– Greg Elin,

Greg gave one of simplest definitions of an API I’ve heard: An API is a “remote control for a piece of software or a computer. … I can write software that has remote control over another piece of software that has an API.”

An API can supply answers to questions like: Where’s a good restaurant in town? What’s the latest stock market quotes? By providing an API, Greg says, “you allow other people to add value to your content and your information. … You’re turning your assets into little tiny Legos that other people can use to build new things.”

Watch, download or embed the video on Vimeo

TweetdeckTwitter has only a handful of basic functions through its own website, but the richness of the Twitter ecology comes through the use of the Twitter API, which has been used by hundreds of start-ups to parse Twitter feeds in hundreds of inventive ways — like Tweetdeck embedded at the right.

Greg recalled how the Sunlight Foundation in 2006 worked to make the activities of Congress more transparent through its release of an API. “Instead of assembling all the information about a congressman into a new database and then making that database available, we concentrated on a very thin layer of information. For our first API for congressmen, we simply put the name of the member of Congress and all of the IDs from each of these different [external] public databases.”

Greg has this final spot-on advice: Begin to consume other organizations’ APIs to get a feel for their power. Then, begin to experiment with different approaches. “What could we open up and let other people begin to use that would provide value?”

Thanks, Greg — I’ve never heard such a passionate call to arms for APIs before!


• OpenCalais: Serving up context on the fly

JD Lasica, founder of, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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