What are APIs? Mike Burhans explains…

9 Mar

One thing I love about putting together slide decks is the fact that it forces you to learn more. This past week, I’ve been working on a deck for our newly developed Web Services Connector, which allows healthcare facilities to easily leverage API’s, and came across some great information in the process.

I would imagine that since I needed to brush up on exactly what an API is, there are those out there that are in the same boat. I knew the term API, I knew it had something to do with access, but it was still quite vague. The acronym means Application Programming Interface, but that still doesn’t help explain things much. Something helped me understand better- flight trackers. If you could imagine a flight tracker without an API, what it would require is a human being able to determine the location of a plane and then physically load that information in to Google Maps- if Google Maps would even allow that to happen- to show where the flight was when you looked for it. With an API, data is collected directly from the plane, the flight tracker uses an API to call Google Maps Data, and now the flight information can be correlated to the map information as fast as information can travel through that API.

What we’ve described, in very simple terms, is a way for data to be exchanged. Here’s where it gets fun. If Google didn’t make their API open to the public, flight trackers wouldn’t be able to use Google Maps to show where the planes are. They’d have to develop their own map software. Unless they have the resources that Google has- there’s no way they could develop map software that matches Google’s capabilities. Since Google decided to make an API to their maps open, flight trackers can concentrate their efforts on tracking flights and leave the heavy lifting of maps to Google.

I’ve learned to rely on the phase, “Web sites are designed for people to interact with computers while API’s are designed for computers to talk to computers.” Think about that for a minute. Computers don’t need pretty pictures to stay engaged. They don’t need interfaces to enter data. By using people as the middle point in the flow of information from computer to computer, you’re introducing a translator that doesn’t need to be there. It’s like having an American speak to a Russian who then translates the American’s message to someone in England. If you said that’s how you were going to communicate with someone in England, people would think you’re nuts. Why haven’t more people thought, “Why is a human the translator between two computers that already speak the same language?”

That’s my take and interpretation on this thing we are hearing a lot more about in healthcare tech. API’s. You might be wondering how this all applies to healthcare. As a fan of those old mini-series tv shows, I will have to leave you with…

…to be continued

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