5 cool things people have done with data and an API

26 August 2016 by Sam Wiltshire

Data is the lifeblood of today's economy. Whether it's an in-depth analysis of a customer's preferences to offer them more personalised deals, or real-time updates on a business' performance to inform their future direction, there's almost no part of the modern business that doesn't rely on digital information to some extent.

But having data is only the start. If firms want to make sure they're using this successfully, they need to be able to get it to the people who need it most. For many solutions, this means that applications will need to effectively talk to one another, share data seamlessly and deliver instant results.

At the heart of this is application programming interfaces (APIs). You may have heard a lot of talk about these in recent years, and with good reason, as they're set to become the backbone of many key online services in the coming years. Therefore, if you're not familiar yet with what these tools can do, you need to learn quickly.

What is an API?

Essentially, an API is a set of routines and rules that govern how one application communicates with another. They've been around almost as long as computers, and are what makes it possible to move information from one program to another. But in today's data-driven, always-online era, they're taking on a far greater importance.

One of the key uses for APIs is on the web, where this technology makes it possible for companies to tap into services offered by some of the world's biggest tech names, such as Google or Facebook, and take advantage of their vast repositories of data. So for example, if you're looking up a hotel or attraction on Trip Advisor's app and see an embedded Google Map showing its location, that's an API in action.

But the technology isn't just useful for businesses. There's also a huge range of fun and informative applications out there that rely on APIs and data. Here's five of my favourite example of what's possible.

Play Pac-Man on the streets

Google is well-known for it's elaborate April fool's jokes, but one of last year's showed how APIs can be used to bring disparate data together and make it fun. If you knew where to look, users of Google Maps could add arcade classic Pac-Man to their page, turning real-world streets into a maze in which you can control everyone's favourite pill-munching hero as he gets chased by Binky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde.

Learn more about your neighbourhood

Another tool that takes advantage of map data and publicly-available records is UK Data Explorer's census map. Using information gleaned from the 2011 survey in England, this let's you view more than 400 variables ranging from average age of a district to how many people live in a bungalow. You can see how your hometown compares to other parts of the country and where the national hotspots are for specific criteria.

Keep an eye on your flight

The aviation sector is one that's rich with data, and there are a range of services that use APIs such as Google Maps alongside real-time radar tracking services to keep track of the thousands of aircraft above our heads at any given time. Online tools let you see exactly where your flight is and if it will be delayed. Or you can just sit back and watch the tiny representations of planes make their way across the map.

Find something to watch

One of the big problems with having thousands of films and TV shows available on demand from the likes of Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Now TV is that actually settling on something to watch can be a nightmare. And even if you do know what you're in the mood for, finding out what service is the best option is tricky. Justwatch.com is one of several tools that solves this by using a movie database API to see which services have a particular movie for streaming, rental or purchase, as well as see what's new on all the major providers.

Catch 'em all

Finally, you'll undoubtedly have heard about Pokemon Go, the smartphone world's latest global phenomenon, but did you know the game uses the Google Maps API to overlay your character and track your movements through the city, as well as determine what points of interest are used as PokeStops? This is a great example of how innovative developers can take publicly-available data and apply it in ways that get people talking - until the game's developers put a stop to it.


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