Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are powerful. They are opening up new connections for programmers, providing to many more people a way to access and analyze extremely varied data, and exposing vast quantities of useful government data (environmental, financial, legal, historical) that has been largely hidden from the public, thereby democratizing access to data and to analytics.
APIs have risen dramatically in importance in the past 5 years as the need for “access” has jumped. Cloud computing, big data and mobile have taken over modern life and changed development priorities. Many companies, including Restlet, now focus on full lifecycle management of APIs, making “easy” API development available to more companies and individuals than ever before.
We view the move of APIs to the front and center of the programming world – democratizing programming – as an extremely positive and empowering trend. We lay out 4 lessons we have learned – so far – in this democratization of APIs.
1 Open source might not matter – or does it?
Open source won the software development war. Companies now have open source software high on their list as they build infrastructure. But as they analyze their needs and dependencies more closely, they often realize they are dealing with APIs more than source code. APIs, in the end, have become the main point of interface and integration. Access to data, and connections between applications, has risen significantly in importance.
It’s important to point out, Restlet Framework, a core piece of the Restlet stack of software, is fully open source, and will continue to be so. As an API provider, we believe open source is the best hope for establishing standards that all players can agree to. For an API provider, open source will continue to matter deeply.
2 New boundaries mean new winners
The move from desktop-centric software development to cloud-based collaborative development has been breathtakingly quick. The dominant position of several legacy players has eroded. Opening up to new players is very healthy for the economy.
But ultimately, a key part of the shift has been APIs. They key is not having information, it’s sharing it. For example, Google has access to an enormous amount of information, but they provide access to it through APIs. Even more significant, Google provides access to analytics and summarization to add extra value.
3 More is better
How quickly can you grow? The limits on data collection are virtually non-existent. As we’ve seen with Facebook and other social media companies, business value is built on information. Facebook claims 1.55 billion monthly active users and 1.39 billion mobile monthly active users (September 2015). The problem is not generating information. The problem is sifting through it.
This is also true if the application works over newer technologies, oftentimes more difficult to integrate, for example Internet of Things (IoT) devices like sensors, for which both the order of magnitude of data produced, and technology requirements to connect to them, was often unheard of before.
4 Opportunity does not equate to implementation
Access to government data is, in some ways, more open and accessible than ever. Data.gov is an incredible resource spanning many areas of government. Successes in Local Government, Consumer, Business, Climate, Health, Energy, Agriculture and more have been well documented.
But in the aggregate, the general public (and thus, voters) continue to miss useable information from government. With little mention in the current round of national politics, and a barrier to access due to programming skills, the influence of the democratization of APIs on actual democracy appears to be, so far, limited. It will take time for open access to permeate through the layers of society. But the opportunity for APIs to actually impact democracy is real!