When Neil Fantom, a manager at the World Bank, sat down with the organization's technology team in 2010 to talk about opening up the bank's data to the world at large, he encountered a bit of unfamiliar terminology. "At that time I didn't even know what 'API' meant," says Fantom.
As head of the bank's Open Data Initiative, announced in April 2010, Fantom was in charge of taking the group's vast trove of information, which previously had been available only by subscription, and making it available to anyone who wanted it. The method of doing that, he would learn, would be an application programming interface.
The API would place thousands of economic indicators, including rainfall amounts, education levels and birth rates -- some metrics going back 50 years -- at the disposal of developers to mix and match and present in any way that made sense to them. The hope was that this would advance the bank's mission of fighting poverty on a global scale by calling on the creativity of others. "There are many people outside the bank who can do things with the data set we never thought about," says Fantom.
One developer, for instance, created an app that married the bank's rainfall data to Google Maps to estimate how much rainwater could be collected on rooftops and subsequently used to water crops in different parts of the world. Another app provides facts about energy consumption and shows individuals what they can do to fight climate change.
Fantom and the World Bank aren't alone in this trajectory. A decade ago, open APIs were a novelty, but in the last few years they've been adopted at an accelerating rate. ProgrammableWeb, a website that tracks public APIs, listed more than 8,800 in early April. According to the site's data, it took from 2000 to 2008 for the number of APIs to reach 1,000, and then another 18 months for that to double. The jump from 7,000 to 8,000 took just three months.
The APIs cover a wide range of categories, including business, shopping, messaging, mapping, telephone, social, financial and government, according to the ProgrammableWeb website. They're becoming as necessary to an organization as a website. "In business today, an open API is more or less table stakes. It's something you have to have," says Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk, an analysis firm that focuses on developers. "Increasingly, your traction is going to be driven by how open and how programmatically manipulable your product is."
When Best Buy first launched its API, BBYOpen, in 2009, it gave developers access only to the chain's products catalog, with descriptions and prices for all the items it had on sale, in the hopes that doing so would bring in more customers. That was part of a deliberate strategy to start slowly, says Steve Bendt, director of emerging platforms at Best Buy. "We had to prove these things over time," he says. "We started to prove out that this is a very vibrant and viable area to pursue."