On a daily basis, Ben Kittrell translates the jargon-filled world of technology for clients of his tech consultancy. The Words that Frustrate (WTF) series aims to offer readers some clarity in an industry dominated by techies’ confusing argot.
APIs — or Application Programming Interfaces — are everywhere. You just don’t see them everyday.
Unless you’re a programmer, you’ll probably never interact with one directly. But your software uses them constantly. So what are these mysterious things? An API is how one program talks to another program — that’s it.
So how does that work?
Let’s use Facebook as an example. One of my clients was building an app to send photos to friends in the future and wanted to include their Facebook photos.
As humans, we interact with Facebook via a User Interface (UI), which is designed to make it easy to share our boring vacation photos and find out which Saved by the Bell character we are. But what’s good for humans is not necessarily good for computers, so my client and I used Facebook’s API.
This gives another program access to most things on Facebook, but in a format that’s easier for it to understand. The Facebook API allowed our app to authenticate with Facebook, get a list of albums and photos in an album all behind the scenes using special programming languages.
Where are APIs?
There’s a growing community of API only platforms that provide services just for programmers. Examples I use in my work include: Twilio for sending text messages and making calls; Stripe for processing credit card payments and ZenCoder for encoding video. As a programmer I no longer need to know how any of that works; I can just offload that work to an API.
Who uses them?
Almost every app has a public API that can be used for all kinds of things. You could write a program that uses a Twitter and Twilio API to send you a text message every time someone tweets #screech. Services like IF and Zapier only exist so lowly humans can tie these APIs together to do cool things.
What about KC?
Thanks to the Cisco Smart City initiative, Kansas City will soon have an API of its own. Light, noise, parking and many other types of sensors all over downtown will be connected to a network and ultimately an API that’s open to developers. This will allow our community to come up with innovative ways to use the sensors’ information. For example someone could create an app that combines Google Maps’ API with parking data, guiding you to the nearest open parking spot. The possibilities are endless.