The Guardian Newspaper launches its own API (And Why this is Exciting)

Today’s exciting story at the crossroads of media and technology is the Guardian’s new API.

If you’re new to the idea of an API, or “application programming interface”, read The Guardian’s own intro to the concept of APIs from 2007. Here’s today’s announcement.

OK, why is this exciting?

Every newspaper is a massive storehouse of potentially interesting data. You can access that data by getting a paper copy and reading it. Or you can access it by visiting their website.

There aren’t many other ways of sifting through the stories, features, facts and statistics held by the newspaper. You are somewhat limited by the design and the methods the Guardian have deemed useful for presenting that data.

But now, The Guardian have opened up access to their content. The same copyright applies, they’ve just allowed you to query it in a multitude of ways. Now, you can write software (or hire someone to write software) which presents it in new forms, giving new insights. The “interface” part of API is not a graphical interface but a set of requests you can send which result in answers and other data coming back.

The API idea is familiar to software developers. Usually it wouldn’t be a surprise for an online service to launch an API – examples abound: Amazon, Facebook, Google Search, Google Maps, Twitter, Yahoo, Flickr and YouTube are just some of the services that offer their own APIs. If you visit one and scroll to the very bottom of their homepage, usually that’s where you’ll see a little API link which takes you to the documentation for developers.

If you take the perspective of a service owner, the set of data you are sitting on is suddenly more useful because of the versatility of access you have allowed. The world at large knows more than you about what it wants from your data – and can do more. When that data is combined with data from other APIs, in the form of a “mash-up”, that’s when the real fun begins.

The practice of newspapers offering APIs is relatively recent. The other big one already available is that of the New York Times. Here’s a real example I picked arbitrarily, Reading Radar. This developer has taken the bestselling books chart from the New York Times and is linking directly to the Amazon listing for each book. Incidentally, he probably makes a modest amount of money via Amazon Associates, an affiliate scheme to drive sales. He credits the New York times prominently as the source of the data, so they get the kudos and the brand recognition. Here’s some technical info on how he achieved it.

Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester Research has a list of suggestions for developers who are keen to flex their coding skills and tap into this rich resource. You can guarantee that most or all of these will appear in the coming weeks.

If you’re not a developer, you can still make use of the new services that spring up – Reading Radar and the like. That’s the point! If you’re on Facebook and have ever used applications like Scrabulous (as was), Super Wall or the hundreds of others then you’ll know this – and sometimes with annoyance in that case. But people come back to Facebook because the usefulness and fun factor outweighs the clutter.

But if you’re a content owner then you should be thinking about how this could impact on the future of your business. Jeff Jarvis argues today that APIs are the new distribution, citing BBC and National Public Radio as further examples of media owners who’ve experimented with offering APIs.

News Corporation, Trinity Mirror and other media owners should be eyeing this Guardian announcement with interest.