Jailbreak Your APIs — Presented at Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference
We live in interesting times.
There used to be a popular saying that a single issue of New York Times contains more information than what the average 17th-century person encountered in their entire lifetime. Of course, this was when New York Times was still primarily thinking in terms of “printed editions”. Those times now feel like Ice Age. Now it’s all digital, and it’s pretty much a continuous stream of information that never stops or takes a break.
The global informational overload, that we are constantly exposed to, can be overwhelming. It’s only natural that sometimes we wish we lived in simpler, less turbulent times. We wish we could just disconnect. The so-called “Digital Detox” is a witty phrase for a useful concept that for many of us is a way to keep our relative sanity.
The explosive surge of available data is not all evil, however. In reality, it 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 that we do now.
We live in interesting times.
Technology, computers and the Internet have brought us closer than ever before. We now take it for granted that you can be pretty much anywhere in the world, yet: get a real-time, front-row view of the breaking news half-way around the globe.
Unfortunately, the disappearance of informational boundaries has also, very painfully, surfaced our most polarizing differences. The globalized world is the world of clashing dissents. It leaves very little space for disagreement in the comfort of isolation, or at distance. We are all in each other’s faces now.
And yet, we want information, because:
when information is put in the hands of the public it is the most powerful weapon to guarantee our freedom and our liberties. It is no coincidence that the very first thing any dictatorship, any oppressive regime does is: restrict access to data and information.
We live in interesting times
A lot has been done in the past years. The Open Data initiative is one of the most exciting initiatives that has been going for several years now. Never before has public had this much access to government information, at all levels, directly through the Internet, in near real-time. And I’m many advocates in the audience would agree that “timeliness” is super important for the freedom of information.
The key technology that facilitates this timely access is: APIs. API is an abbreviation for: Application Programming Interfaces. That doesn’t really explain much, but in more human terms: APIs are the informational “pipes” that allow various data-sets to be reliably and efficiently transmitted over the Internet.
APIs were not invented for Open Government or Open Data, however. Their initial development is related to our increasingly mobile lifestyle. APIs are what connect our mobile applications to the so-called “cloud” i.e. the data centers that provide centralized data storage and processing for the 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 the current APIs is that: most APIs are, at best, creating narrow windows into solid walls surrounding the silo-ed data islands. Even the most well-known and large APIs – such as those provided by Twitter, Facebook or Google, to a lesser extent, – only operate on the data that is within their own databases.
To take Twitter as the example: there is a lot that you can do with their public API; but in the end all of the created content always resides on Twitter’s servers. The same is true for Facebook, of course. Most Government APIs don’t even allow any “write” functionality and are strictly read-only.
In that sense, current APIs create isolated, guarded data islands in the universe of the web. Which is very “anti-web” — the 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 APIs: Linked APIs, based on the same hypermedia design that we have in the rest of the world wide web. Such APIs will have the biggest impact for Open Data, because they’re all about linking and making connections across data-sets and across organizational boundaries. Linked APIs are also very scalable and best suited to meet the modern challenges of Big Data. After all, world wide web is the largest, most distributed network of information, mankind has ever created. We know the architecture of the web can scale and Linked APIs have the same exact architecture, with Hypermedia as the engine.
For the freedom of data, we really need more Linked APIs.
We can only truly have open and free data, if we jail-brake the data out of the silos that data is stashed-away at, currently.
Linked APIs provide us the keys to the data fortresses where large aggregators, currently hide data. Linked APIs ensure that our data isn’t stashed-away in some scary, centralized warehouses at the mercy of a handful of dominant players.
Linked APIs are the key to data freedom on the web. They are the engine of that freedom. Let’s get the engine cranking!