Open Data in Action: What is an API?


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In the past, information or data sharing typically required a fee or specific agreements. For example, if you wanted to get content from a news article, you had to buy a newspaper. Technology has changed how we share information: it has removed barriers and created incentives for open data sharing.

One way that online data can be made more available is through an “application programming interface” or API. While the name may be intimidating, you probably use APIs every day. APIs bring us real-time news, weather, and photosharing.

At the Health Experience Design Conference Exit Disclaimer last week Todd Park, former Chief Technology Officer at HHS and newly appointed CTO to the President, spoke of the benefits of “liberating data.” APIs make data more accessible by making them “machine-readable,” in a format that is downloadable, free, and easy to find. The U.S. government is making more and more health data available so “innovators can turn it into public data that…improves health.” The Community Health Data Initiative aims to be the “NOAA of health data.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) weather data provides data about the weather that is accessible through an API. In turn, others generate their own products, such as weather newscasts, websites, widgets, and apps. In other words, they encourage individuals and organizations to take their data and create new products that best serve their audiences.

Healthfinder is an example of a government health agency’s API. Their Quick Guide to Healthy Living API provides developers the latest version of the Quick Guide to Healthy Living content. This API allows developers flexibility to create customized products. To assist with this process, they have made the same content and updates available via content syndication for users with less web development experience or fewer resources. Another example of a health API is PatientsLikeMe Exit Disclaimer, who has used the  API to help patients find clinical trials that are right for them and help companies find patients who are right for their trials. recently made the information from the HIV/AIDS Service Provider Locator available by creating an API. Currently the HIV/AIDS Service Provider Locator allows individuals and providers to enter a ZIP code and find federally-funded HIV testing and care-related services within a selected mile radius. We hope that organizations and individuals will find innovative ways to use the HIV/AIDS Locator’s API data (service provider names, addresses, phone numbers, locations and so on, categorized by service type) on websites, apps, and databases to connect people to prevention and treatment services.

Whatever you can dream of doing with this public data, it’s yours to use. We are excited to see what you come up with!

In part two of this series you will learn more about the Locator API and how it might be used in the response to HIV.

Let us know what questions you have about APIs and we will try to answer them in our next post. We would also be interested in hearing your ideas for the HIV/AIDS Service Locator API. If you have used APIs before please share your experience in the comments.