With API’s Good Things Can Happen

I’ve been banging on for some time about how APIs are the future for brand apps. The idea is simple. If brands created APIs for their activities, other people would take that information and create far better apps (and at no cost to the business). Strangely, it’s something that government bodies, such as Transport for London seem to understand.  Two of the best apps currently, are API-based, combining open data with a great user experience:


It seems like everyone in London is using this app, and no one has a bad word to say about it. Citymapper has so many functions, in a simple UX, they are impossible to list here.  Even as a life-long Londoner, Citymapper has suggeseted transport routes that I have never considered (and often faster ones). The app achieves its goal through accessing a number of APIs from TfL as well as Foursquare data and delivered via their own algorithm. It’s a great example of how open data can be used to deliver an excellent user experience.


Although it hasn’t achieved the success of Citymapper, Whisk is another example of a great, frictionless experience. After selecting a recipe, and the number of diners, it lists the price of the ingredients across a range of supermarkets. They use APIs from Tesco, Ocado, Waitrose and Asda. You then select which you want to buy, and the supermarket. The best part is that the app allows you to add these items directly to the shopping basket of your chosen supermarket’s app.

Given these examples, why doesn’t every brand create an API for their data and simply open it up to developers? The results will be a far better experience than they could ever create (not to mention many more users).

One small step for … open data

Nasa Creates an Open Source Portal for Agencies

The US space agency has been open data for quite a while. Their data and images on The World’s highest mountains allowed EA Games to create snowboard runs on Everest. However, they have now taken their open data even further by providing a portal at code.nasa.gov. It lists open sourced projects and contacts for each. They intend to extend this soon with for tracking, hosting and planning for software they have created.

I previously blogged about how open data could be the solution for creating branded apps. This is another great example of how it could (should) be done.

Is Open Data the Future for Brands?

It may sound very dull but open could represent the future for brand engagement. There’s plenty of talk about the UK Government’s Open Data initiative. Just a couple of years in and there are already some interesting projects. Take London’s Cycle Hire Scheme, Boris Bikes. Within days of the announcement there were iPhone apps-a plenty telling you where the nearest bike parks were, how many were there and so on. That was all thanks to open data. Boris and his chums didn’t need to build a complex app, all they had to do was get the information out there and someone would do something interesting with it.

One exciting development is the open data initiative from Ordnance Survey. Last year they opened up an API to their maps, but it was only Javascript. However, they have announced that they will be releasing an iOS and HTML5 API in January 2012. That means that any developer can take the maps and do something interesting. ‘But we already have maps on smartphones’ I hear you say? Yes we have some good road maps, but OS is very different. It gives footpaths, field boundaries and every building is shown regardless of whether it’s in the city or countryside. That’s far more detail than anyone else. And think of what could be done with all that fantastic map data? Hiking or off road cycling apps are an obvious example. But in the end, you don’t really know what you’re going to get. That’s the fun part of open data. Someone somewhere will probably come up with something interesting.

So on to brands. Rather than spending lots of time and energy developing apps or mobile sites, why don’t they just open up their data and let other people use it in interesting ways? If consumers like it they’ll use it, if they don’t they won’t. Tesco’s already did this to some extent a few years ago, by creating an API into their online shopping, Tesco.com. Besides online stock and ordering they also have included their barcodes as part of the interface. They have around 1000 developers registered. And the great thing for Tesco’s is that their .com service can be used by any developer. It’s like a (free) affiliate scheme only much better.

Many online and social media brands know the value of open data. Google has a number of APIs, but the new kids on the block like Foursquare or Instagram have them from the word go. You only have to go to their sites to see how many great applications independent developers have created with this. Take Instagram. Someone I know has just produced a great little app called Instabam. It uses your location and shows photos from near where you are. Great, simple and fun.

So why doesn’t every supermarket do the same as Tescos? And whilst they are at it, they could do even more. Besides prices, stock and barcodes, why not include delivery logistics or store layouts? Someone will develop an app that shows you where your delivery van is, or takes you around the store via the fastest route based on your shopping list. It’s not just retail though, every brand should be doing it. How about banks? OK, they’re not going to open up APIs to our personal accounts, but what about all the other data they publish? Interest rates, insurance offers. Even the salaries of their directors – if they really think they are acceptable, then they should make them open data and let someone make an app with it.

How will people use all this data? Well, we don’t know. That’s the great thing about open data. Of course brands will worry about people ‘mis-using’ their information. However it’s no different than how a brand should approach social media. It’s like saying ‘we shouldn’t have a Twitter presence in case people say something bad about us’ (of course some brands actually do say that). In reality people will think and say bad things about your brand wherever they are, so it’s better to know and address it, surely? The same can be said about open data. It can bring out all kinds of things you would prefer people not to know. One teenager used the government’s data about department energy use to produce a chart showing the best and worst ministries. Some departments looked very bad, but it allowed those poor performing ones to look at the problem and address it. In the end brands need to realise that just like your Facebook Wall, open data is about democracy – let people use it, don’t try to control it.

In fact, if brands opened up all their data, then they need not worry about developing apps or mobile sites any more. Brands should think about it this way – if you open up your data then some bloke in Shoreditch wearing skinny jeans will come up with an application that you never thought of. And it will be great and it won’t cost you a penny. The only problem for me is that as a mobile strategist, brands will no longer need me and I’ll be out of a job!