So why should universities devote effort to caring about application programming interfaces (APIs)? I work at Jisc as a programme manager and have recently been involved in work that could provide some answers as to the benefits of APIs.
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are nothing new. In fact, Google web trends show searches for the term API have been on an increase since their records began in 2004. However, I would argue that there are still potential benefits to universities to be wrung from this venerable technology.
The simplest definition of an API is ‘an interface to a website or software that is designed to be used by developers not by end users’. It allows developers to access the data inside the website or software and use that data in other websites or other pieces of software.
Allows an easy transfer of data around your institution and with partners
The modern university has a mind-boggling array of software, hardware and websites. They also work in an increasingly collaborative environment. To ensure the smooth running of the university and for ease of collaboration, it is essential that data can flow between the systems that make a university tick. APIs offer a route to addressing the problem. Read some examples of how institutions have used APIs to move data between systems.
Provides automation for laborious tasks
Data sharing between systems can often be difficult and can sometimes require the manual processing of information to take it from one system and to another. APIs offer potential cost savings in the process of moving data. There will be an initial set up cost for the API, but in the long run they should offer a more efficient and more scalable option than manual data processing. This should not only provide cost savings but should also allow the exploration of new opportunities which arise when working at a greater scale.
Improves attraction and retention of students
Universities operate in an increasingly competitive environment; they need to attract students. A university's brand is an important element in attracting students. APIs could offer opportunities to ensure a university's brand is well represented in social media and other websites where potential students are likely to be looking. An way of using APIs to help with retention would be developing smartphone applications. These could make it easier for students to settle in to life at the university, for example the recently developed NewcastleUniversity App.
These are all big issues for universities and APIs offer the promise of big rewards. But big rewards rarely come easily. However, when thinking about APIs we are fortunate that there is a wealth of good practice in successful implementation on the web and in enterprises. The report which I have been involved in writing offers some useful case studies and examples that people can follow when implementing APIs. It also includes some practical pointers on management and planning issues that need to be taken into account if APIs are to be implemented.
So, while APIs are sometimes viewed as some kind of young web 2.0 upstart, I would argue that they are a mature technology with a long history of solving exactly the kind of challenges every university is facing. I’d love to hear how you are using APIs – please do tweet @andymcg or comment below I'd also like to hear if you think I've got it wrong and that APIs are in fact old hat with newer technologies emerging that can offer better ways of
addressing these problems.
Read Andy’s team blog