June 9th, 2014

Jailbreak Your APIs

Jailbreak Your APIsAt this week’s Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference, I gave a presentation titled Jailbreak Your APIs, in which I explored the concept of “linked APIs” and explained the potential these interfaces have for helping us create a freer, more open world. The global informational overload that we are constantly exposed to, can be overwhelming but ideas like linked APIs help us remember that the explosive surge of available data also brings us beautiful things such as transparency, openness and an unprecedented feeling of global connectedness.

We’ve never felt more connected to the rest of the world than we do now. Computers, mobile devices and the Internet have brought us closer than ever before. We now take it for granted that a person can be pretty much anywhere in the world and still get a real-time, front-row view of breaking news from half-way around the globe. While this disappearance of informational boundaries has surfaced many of our most polarizing differences, we still cherish our unprecedented ability to access information because access to information has always been our most powerful weapon for defending our rights and liberties.

In this context, the White House’s Open Data Policy (part of the Open Government Initiative) is particularly exciting. Never before has the American public had so much access to government information, at all levels. And all this happens directly through the Internet, in near real-time. The ability to access this information in a timely manner is crucial – we need access to information right when it is immediately relevant to guaranteeing our freedoms. This relates to my work with CA Layer 7’s API Academy because APIs supply the core technology for facilitating timely access to data.

Recent growth in the prominence of APIs is not simply a reaction to Open Government and Open Data. The API has organically become more important in recent years, due to our increasingly mobile lifestyles. APIs are vital to mobility because they connect our mobile devices to the cloud – specifically, to the datacenters that host the information and functionality that powers our apps. APIs have played an undeniably critical role in the mobile revolution of recent years. However, for APIs to play a similar role in the Open Data revolution, we need them to become much better.

The problem with APIs right now is that most of them are, at best, creating narrow windows into solid walls surrounding siloed data. Even the biggest, most well-known APIs (such as those provided by Twitter, Facebook and Google) to a large extent, only operate on the data that is within these organizations’ own databases. And most Government APIs don’t even allow any “write” functionality – they are strictly read-only.

In that sense, most current APIs create isolated, guarded data islands. This is very “anti-Web” — the World Wide Web was created in the spirit of decentralized equal participation. On the Web, everybody publishes everywhere, owns their data and then we have ways to reach that data through hyperlinks, through Google search and other methods. APIs have not really reached that stage of maturity yet. APIs are highly centralized, in terms of data storage and virtually none of them ever link to other APIs.

We need a new breed of interfaces: linked APIs, based on the same hypermedia design that we have on the rest of the Web. Such APIs will have the biggest impact for Open Data because they will link and make connections across datasets and organizational boundaries. Linked APIs are also very scalable, so they will be best suited to meeting the challenges of Big Data. After all, the Web is the largest, most distributed network of information humankind has ever created. We know the architecture of the Web can scale and linked APIs have the exact same architecture, with hypermedia as the engine.

For freedom of data, we really need more linked APIs. We can only truly have open and free data if we jailbreak the information out of the silos it is currently stashed-away in. Linked APIs provide us with keys to the data fortresses where large aggregators currently keep data. Linked APIs can ensure that our data isn’t stashed in centralized warehouses. Linked APIs represent the engine of data freedom on the Web. Let’s get the engine cranking!

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