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API: Three Letters That Change Life, The Universe ... and Elections?

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[Image courtesy of epthinking]

Wired recently featured a profile of Apigee, a company run by a former Microsoft programmer that aims to help companies build application programming interfaces - or APIs - that will unlock their data for users across the technology spectrum.

For the uninitiated, APIs are approaches to programming that allow developers to help end users use information to get information. Anyone who's used a "get directions" button on a website is likely calling an API; users enter and address, which is then standardized and matched against a map file, after which the program figures out the best way to get from Point A to desired Point B. Similarly, anyone who's ever used Facebook to play Words with Friends is benefiting from game developer Zynga's use of Facebook's APIs to share information.

Indeed, once an API is built, it allows for almost infinite variations in the ways in which developers and end users alike can share data. This short (2:27) video is as good an introduction as you'll ever get to the concept of APIs.

From the article:

There was a time when APIs ... were just a way of building applications for a desktop operating system like Microsoft Windows. But in the age of the internet, they have the power to plug applications into, well, almost anything. They've already transformed websites like Google and Facebook and Twitter into services that talk to a world of other applications, across PCs as well as mobile phones. But that's small potatoes. They're also breathing new life into old-world operations, including mobile carriers like AT&T and even auto makers like General Motors. In January, GM -- another Apigee partner -- said it would offer APIs for OnStar, the communications service it builds into cars.

Initially, companies saw APIs as above - a way to expand known markets by extending access to information across different technologies. But APIs also have the power to create new markets by making data freely available, creating new products. Again, from the article:

[I]n other cases, APIs are a way of giving things away for free, in the hope that this will expand the use of a service and eventually generate new revenue in other ways. If AT&T improves applications on its network, for instance, more people will use it -- at least in theory. And that means more money. [emphasis added]

Even a company like Bloomberg, which lives to look at the bottom line, is investing in APIs as a method of expanding its reach. On February 1, the company opened up new free APIs for market data. While Apigee and others believe that such APIs could be even more open - working on more platforms using a wider variety of tools - it's still a huge leap forward for a company used to making money ladling out data from a closed system.

The foundation of any API is a standard set of data - usually "open data" - that the API can call to do its work. The National Weather Service uses such data to distribute its information and support its own API that your favorite newscast, website or mobile app uses to let you know what to wear every morning.

Similar applications to elections are almost too numerous to describe. Pew's Voting Information Project has already enlisted the support of state and local election offices to build open data that tech companies like Google and Microsoft use to build APIs that link addresses to polling places, ballot information and other important data. Future election APIs could help voters find the early voting station with the shortest wait time, help election offices quickly and efficiently deliver personalized ballot information to voters - even help a court decide which of two proposed redistricting plans will result in the least amount of disruption for voters on Election Day.

There are already lots of top-notch election geeks hard at work assembling the building blocks of the APIs that will transform elections in the very near future; for the rest of us, just knowing what APIs are, how they work and why they're important is enough.

If you, like me, are a geek wannabe but didn't watch the short video several grafs ago, here it is again. I promise it's worth a click.

1 Comment


  • Nice article

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