Tech Talk: What is an API and why should I care?
Increasingly our clients are seeking ways to share data both internally with other tools they use, as well as externally with one or more partners.
An example of connecting internal tools would be a client of ours connect their phone system with iCarol both to facilitate “screen pops” when a call is routed to a particular phone worker and iCarol appears prepopulated with information about that caller, as they answer the phone; as well as to combine the data collected by both systems to answer operational questions like “what is our average handling time for calls related to different help seeker needs?”.
And an example of sharing data externally would be giving access to your resource database so a third party can build a mobile app or a website targeted at a certain sub-population in your area, like immigrants or job seekers.
Enabling these data sharing relationships, whether internally or externally, is where API’s come to the rescue.
An Application Programming Interface (API) allows electronic systems to interact with each other without the need for the direct human intervention. That is, with an API no person needs to direct data traffic between two systems, say via a website or other screen – the systems just talk directly to each other behind the scenes. In this way, the data that resides in the main system can be searched, retrieved and even modified by other authorized computer systems connecting to it.
To do this, a software vendor writes an API and makes it available securely on the internet, and also publishes documentation about how other developers can use it. They can be one-way APIs, also known as “read only” because the software consuming the data from the API cannot modify it. Or they can be two-way APIs, where the consumer software can make modifications, like creating new records, or modifying or deleting existing ones.
At iCarol, we’ve had an API for a number of years now and are actively expanding its capabilities – it is used by quite a number of our clients to enable real-time data transfers both internally and externally. And we also consume quite a few API’s published by other software systems. Some of them enhance iCarol’s capabilities, like Google Maps or tools that let us send and receive SMS messages within iCarol. Others let us push client data to their partners, for example client or call data that needs to transfer into a partner’s electronic medical record systems.
APIs have been around for a long time in the software world, and will only grow in importance in the years to come. We continue to be excited about their possibilities and will certainly be expanding our use of them.