Oren Michels | Co-Founder & GM
September 10, 2012

Apolitical APIs

In July 2011, the Poynter Institute, the go-to resource for breeding the next generation of journalists and other media creatures, took on the task of telling its audience about the birds and the bees. “There are three letters that have been floating around the media world for several years now: API,” the article noted, and these help “software programs to communicate with one another.” (The piece also lamented the lack of adequate resources to explain API documentation to “non-coders.”) For journalists still wondering what those three letters spell, it’s been a year and there are likely far more resources available now. Besides that, however, the Poynter piece offered another, and quite valid, acknowledgement that by their very importance in the information food chain, media organizations are fundamentally data providers. For one thing, this puts them squarely in competition not just with other media outlets but also with every data-centric entity, from tiny advocacy groups to large corporations and the government itself. The question has taken on added urgency because we’re in a particularly news-heavy period. It’s the election season, and in this volatile political environment the way information is consumed makes a huge difference to every constituency. And that’s why this whole API acronym is such a big deal. There was already some buzz around this when PIPA and SOPA, two tech-centric issues, were big in the news. Earlier this year, Poynter itself helpfully pointed to numerous APIs that helped journalists and offered different ways to serve up masses of data. And with the partisan divide now so dominant, APIs are emerging as a unique tool to help those ‘non-coders’ out there learn more. Take federal spending and taxes (please). The data is visible but hardly transparent. The information is so voluminous, and the numbers so massive (not many of us can easily relate to billions and trillions) that it’s essentially impossible to comprehend. So two computer engineers from up north set up WhatWePayFor, which in turn teamed with Google and Eyebeam to create the Data Viz Challenge. This was an invitation to “artists, coders, and the general public to create data visualizations that would make it easier for U.S. citizens to understand how the government spends our tax money.” The winning entries are not just creative but uniquely suited for this environment. This doesn’t mean that the media brands are out of the loop—for the really innovative organizations out there, it’s a chance for them to show what they can do that others can’t, a value-add version of information distribution. The venerable New York Times has its own campaign finance API, an offering from the Times Developer Network that goes to the well-funded heart of this super-PAC driven election. The API makes it easy (or least much easier than is otherwise possible) to extract data from the Federal Election Commission and find who’s getting how much money, and from whom. The Washington Post is getting in on the action, too. It recently opened up its data on no less than three issues of interest to its audience: campaign finance, White House visitors, and the issues engine. And if you’re more of an Anglophile, we have a particular interest in (and business relationship with) the British broadsheet The Guardian. This longtime favorite has amassed huge quantities of information on Westminster politics and elections, and as part of its new Open Platform API approach has made it all available to developers “to make new things and reuse the information in their applications.” Cheers, Guardian. This is just what’s happening now—can you imagine what the next elections will be like? What kind of broad-based API strategies will each party (and even each candidate) adopt, and what effect will it have on campaigns and turnout? How will the media try to avoid getting bypassed? What will individual activists do to offer up information their way? Now that’s an election season to be hopeful about.