How can APIs help your business?

Simon Bramble

Wednesday 19 October 2016

When huge amounts of information need to be shared, organisations face a choice: they can develop a bespoke solution for every type of transaction at great cost, or they can access an existing program via an API that does exactly what’s required for far less outlay.

At its most basic level, an application programming interface (API) is a doorway to a software program. It is a set of instructions that lets one piece of code interact with another, often without the need for a web browser.

You already use countless APIs

Your smartphone is built to host hundreds of APIs. When you tap a weather app, it will ask a web resource for the latest forecast in a particular place and display the result within the app.

The API enables the information transaction between the app on your phone and the software that monitors and records weather data around the world.

APIs are especially common in large organisations such as government departments, where different data sets are required by thousands of different users at any given time. They allow the public to interact with government more quickly and easily.

In fact, APIs have been a foundation stone of the UK government’s digital transformation. James Stewart, a technical architect at the Government Digital Service, said APIs were “a vital feature of the modern web and are really important to GOV.UK” back in 2012. They help people access a complex information estate simply, and they also let developers build and iterate sites rapidly.

Letting things talk to other things

As well as opening up official services to the public, APIs are proving essential in another field: the Internet of Things. Whether it’s controlling your central heating with your smartphone or adding items suggested by your fridge to your shopping list, APIs are fast changing the way our personal technology talks to each other.

These advances have come about because businesses have figured out that APIs don’t just make things easier for internal development teams. They are now being leveraged as strategic tools, the keys to fields and markets that would otherwise have remained closed. Who would have foreseen home appliance manufacturers working directly with supermarkets or even music-streaming services?

APIs can help businesses make their key data drivers available to more teams, partner firms and even third-party developers. Doing so gets new minds thinking about old problems; the whole enterprise becomes more efficient and agile.

The first step is to be brave. Experiment with using APIs to open the door to a part of your business previously unexplored by the outside world, and see what happens.

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