API – Application Programming Interface

Here’s a scenario – You don’t work in the field of data analysis but feel that there is more that could be done with the data you use in your field of work. If only you could access the data you require without having to go to your software application, download the data to an excel spreadsheet and then make adjustments in the spreadsheet before you can get the answers. It would be great if you could see the information without the intermediary steps of downloading and adjusting each time.

You speak to your data analyst and they start saying, yes you can cut out the middle step as there is an API. Unfortunately the analyst starts confusing you by talking more about APIs and their intricacies using more technical terms such as Get and Pull requests, tokens, and JSON to name but a few, but you are still at the starting blocks thinking what’s an API? It’s all sounding really complicated and you start to think you will just stick with your current excel method.

Don’t let others bamboozle you with technical phrases such as ‘API’ (Application Programming Interface). For your scenario an API is a means of connecting the data source which is hidden from your view in the background to the software application you interact with and view on your screen. That’s all you need to know.

To think of it another way:

  • You have a TV screen. The TV is an inanimate object. On its own it does nothing, just shows a blank screen.
  • There is a socket on the wall and you know that behind the socket there is electricity. The electricity just sits there.
  • You have a cable that connects the socket to the TV.
  • Once the cable is plugged into the socket and TV, electricity can flow from the socket to the TV and the screen lights up.

Let’s look at this in a data scenario.

  • You have a database in the background where the data is saved.
  • You have a monitor on which you would like to see the data.
  • The data needs to flow from the database to the software application you are using, with the output of the application being shown on your monitor screen.
  • Here an API is used to flow the data from the database to the software application (akin to the cable above).
  • However data can also flow in the oppose direction from the software application to the database so think of it as a two-way flow.
Data flow with an API - database to software application to monitor, then keyboard to software application to database

Make a connection

APIs can sometimes be straightforward to use, other times they can be quite complex with more coding involved to make the various different connections required and to consider any necessary security measures.

But, if you are not the individual making the API connection, when working with data just think of an API as a connection along which data can flow.

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