Technology Explained

What Are APIs, And How Are Open APIs Changing The Internet

Matthew Hughes 19-02-2015

Have you ever wondered how programs on your computer and the websites you visit “talk” to each other? To understand that, we first have to delve into the weird and wonderful world of APIs, or Application Programing Interfaces.


What is An API?

The phrase API appears regularly in computer-science fields. But what does it mean? Well, definitively put, it refers to a tool, or library, that assists developers in writing code that interfaces with other software. These can range from the low-level tools that allow Windows and OS X applications to use aspects of the underlying operating system, to those powering the apps on your phone. In short, it defines a way in which a computer program communicates with another computer program.

But APIs aren’t inherently interesting. The application of these tools is what really matters. Here’s how APIs are making the web awesome, opening up governments, and increasing consumer choice.

APIs in Business

You might assume that the technology world is inherently cut-throat, with incumbents not wishing to provide a leg-up to the competition. But you’d be wrong. Indeed, many large technology firms, such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, even allow the use of their service by third parties and competitors.

Yes, there’s a genuinely compelling commercial reason why a competitor would release an API, and then have allow anyone to use it. With respect to Facebook and Twitter, we see how third parties have enriched these services with their own code. A great example of this is seen in Klout, which allows developers to measure their social influence, find influential people in their spheres of interest, and schedule Tweets and Facebook postings.



Having an API also allows users to create alternative applications for existing mobile and desktop computing platforms – such as these alternative Facebook apps for Android Faster, Leaner, Better - Alternatives To The Android Facebook App Oh, the joys of having social media available to us at any time of day thanks to the advent of the smartphone. Facebook has always been (at least on the surface) about connecting with your... Read More we looked at in 2013, as well as for newer, more tentative platforms. It is for this reason why Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all have presence on smaller, less commercially significant platforms, the likes of which include Windows Phone, Blackberry 10, Firefox OS and Tizen (what’s Tizen What Operating Systems Do Wearable Devices Run On? Wearable tech, in its many shapes and forms, changes human-machine interaction. Read More ?).

Having an API also allows users and companies to manipulate an existing product to serve their own interests. We’ve covered some incredible examples of this in the past, including the API released by Norwegian startup Now Lets You Add Video Conferencing Facilities To Any Website Simply put, it is now possible to integrate within your own website and blog. But why should you care? Read More , which allows users to integrate their own HTML5 driven videoconferencing applications within their blogs, websites and applications.

APIs In The Browser

The HTML5 specification has defined what the modern browsing experience should look like – fast, interactive, and with the least plugins possible. Although support for the standard is nowhere near completed, and remains wildly inconsistent across browsers, there’s still an amazing amount of functionality on offer.

We’ve discussed HTML5 at length in the past What Is HTML5, And How Does It Change The Way I Browse? [MakeUseOf Explains] Over the past few years, you may have heard the term HTML5 every once in a while. Whether you know anything about web development or not, the concept can be somewhat nebulous and confusing. Obviously,... Read More , and even penned an e-book about it Get Started With HTML5 You’ve heard of HTML5. Everybody is using it. It's being heralded as the savior of the Internet, allowing people to create rich, engaging web pages without resorting to using Flash and Shockwave. Read More , but it can never hurt to recap. The latest functionality in the HTML5 specification makes it easy to create rich, detailed games and animations with Canvas; for websites to store data on the user’s computer, without using cookies; and for websites to determine your location and even determine the battery status on your computer.


To get an idea of the power of HTML5, check out these 5 browser based HTML5 games 5+ HTML5 Games to Play in Your Browser Now HTML5 is driving Web development forward in an exciting way. It offers a range of advantages over its predecessors, and could (and really should) kill proprietary plugins such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight. HTML5... Read More . My favorite is the the beautiful (and addictive) HexGL.

What you might not know is that these individual components of the HTML5 are largely considered to be APIs in the truest sense. How so? Well, firstly, like all APIs, there’s a published and carefully designed standard of how this functionality of the browser works, and how developers use it.

Much like the API, or the Facebook or Instagram API, developers use this standard and functionality in order to make data transactions, like with the IndexedDB API, or to access browser functionality, like with the Canvas API.

APIs In Government

In recent years, we’ve seen an unprecedented opening of government, and a sustained surge towards transparency. In the UK, we’ve seen the launch of, which is a ‘one-stop shop’ of government datasets and statistics, ripe for analysis by statisticians, journalists and data scientists. In the US, they’ve also been steadily marching towards openness, but with a slightly different edge. Rather than just distribute their open data as excel spreadsheets and CVS files, they’ve chosen to use APIs.


The background behind this lies in Executive Order 13571 issued by the Obama administration on April 27, 2011. Titled ‘Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service’, it demanded that government agencies examine how they can improve the delivery of services, and emphasized that this should be achieved with digital technologies. Shortly after that, Obama announced “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People”, which defined how this content would be delivered to the American public. Namely, with an open API which would simultaneously act as the lynchpin behind a number of government IT projects, but also provide access to privately-developed applications.


This project is perhaps one of the first of its kind, but has been a phenomenal success, with a majority of US government agencies releasing open data sets, including the National Institute of Health, the US Army, and the Department of Homeland Security.

For the most part, to take advantage of these APIs, you’ll likely need to have a solid background in programming, as well as a degree of competency in data visualization, data science and statistics. But as an end-user, you can take advantage of the applications and websites that use these datasets. One impressive one I’ve noticed is AirNow, which allows you to monitor air quality in your neighborhood.


America is not alone in using APIs to open their government and increase transparency. Other governments who have since released open data APIs include those of Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

The Rise of the API

APIs sound dull, but they’re anything but. They’ve changed the ways governments operate, and they’ve brought an unprecedented range of choice when it comes to how you use the Internet.

You can even integrate flight data into your projects Integrate Flight Data Into Your Projects With aviationstack The aviationstack API lets you add useful flight data to your website with little effort. Here's how to start using it right away. Read More , or use an API to scrape data from websites The Scrapestack API Makes It Easy to Scrape Websites for Data Looking for a powerful and affordable web scraper? The scrapestack API is free to start and offers many handy tools. Read More to help you find and dissect information more effectively.

Related topics: API, Programming.

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  1. Todd
    December 15, 2016 at 6:05 am

    Very good intro into the api and it's uses. If you ever get a chance can you do an article on how to make use of API's is there an application you put them in or do you just copy the Web address and surf to it one at a time. I did down load on piece of SW (json pro free) off play but it is confusing deciding what to put where. I would really like to learn this because it's obvious that API make the Internet much more valuable. Thank you for hearing me out. And thank you for all excellent tutorials and articles .

    October 4, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    Nothing more dangerous than a friend without discretion even a prudent enemy is preferable.

    December 30, 2015 at 5:07 pm

    the name of the windows version the internet api is ...........???

  4. Anonymous
    September 30, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    For those of you in doubt... check this huge API catalog

  5. Anonymous
    August 12, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    Anybody have experience with building a QuickBooks API?

  6. Violeta Nedkova
    April 7, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Haha, all of my friends are also excited about APIs. I never was, but after reading this, I don't know, there's something about people being excited about things that gets you excited too. You know? Keep writing, can't wait to see what comes next. :)

  7. Tubby
    February 27, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    anyone know a way to find the data source that a site is using via API?

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 28, 2015 at 1:46 pm

      I'm not sure I understand your question. Can you rephrase? What are you trying to accomplish?

    • Tubby
      February 28, 2015 at 8:59 pm

      When you see an element on a website, e.g. (stock quotes), and wonder where they get the information from.

      Is there a way to see where the information comes from?

      And is there a tool that allows someone to 'easily' set up an API source and create the display for the web?

  8. Mestengo Hidalgo
    February 21, 2015 at 8:00 am

    APIs are just another step towards to complete assembly of Skynet. Question is, who will get there first? The U.S. government, Google, or Apple?

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 28, 2015 at 1:47 pm

      Not really. APIs are just the way computer software talks to each other.

  9. Evan
    February 19, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    This article was published today (19th Feb, 2015), but has comments from 5 years ago?

    • Tony
      February 20, 2015 at 8:46 am

      I guess their API not working correctly...

    • Ernie
      February 21, 2015 at 2:04 am

      Good observation

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 28, 2015 at 1:46 pm

      We decided to update this article to reflect the reality of APIs in 2015!

      Good catch though!

  10. Lambo
    January 31, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    An Awesome explanation for begineers

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 28, 2015 at 1:47 pm

      Thanks! I appreciate it!

  11. Gomathysankar S
    December 23, 2014 at 5:20 am

    Wonderful...Simple and super..

  12. Aibek
    August 26, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    thanks for a clear and simple explanation.

  13. Varun Kashyap
    August 25, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Couldn't agree more, APIs on the web have been the building blocks for many an application, and might actually take us closer to the semantic web!

    • Ramalingam Sivasailam
      January 30, 2015 at 11:36 am

      Since we're on it, is there a post where you explain Semantic Markup as well?
      Or, if there isn't, could you kindly enlighten us with one? That'd be great!

  14. coldplayinglinux
    August 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Excellent :D

  15. Saikat Basu
    August 24, 2010 at 4:04 am

    Very clearly and simply explained Varun. APIs are the handshakes which have helped to extend the web like never before. Imagine what would we do without photosharing and video embedding. Mashups are of course the next wave of web apps.

  16. Tony
    August 24, 2010 at 2:31 am

    I am astonished, A very wonderful post indeed. This post could help many readers in understanding API because the word 'API' is becoming more common these days.