API or die

“By offering greater API access, news organizations can also experiment with becoming capable of being platforms themselves.”

If you don’t use APIs in 2017, your media business will die.

trushar-barotNow that the over-dramatic opening is out the way, here’s what I think is going to be a significant shift in the use of platforms in 2017: the opening up of APIs, everywhere.

An API (application programming interface) is essentially a set of building blocks given to you by a platform (e.g. by a messaging app or social media company) to enable you to build your own functionality on top of what is offered by the platform as standard. Depending on what building blocks are made available, you can create your own services or user experiences.

A lot of the tools currently used in the industry — Dataminr, Chartbeat, SocialFlow, and Crowdtangle, among others — all take advantage of APIs offered by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram to deliver deeper data, analytics, alerts, or publishing mechanisms.

APIs aren’t new — they’ve been around a long time. What will be so significant about 2017 is just how widespread they will become — meaning news organizations will have the potential to distribute content and engage with audiences at a greater scale than ever before.

Want to develop an app for a Google, Tesla, or Apple self-driving car? That could soon be possible because of APIs. Want to pull in insights data from YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter into your own in-house analytics tool? APIs mean you can now. Want to connect your TV production systems into Facebook Live? An API will sort it for you. How about developing bespoke automated accounts or content that are more likely to be picked up with AI assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, or Google’s Assistant? All of these AI assistants are likely to offer sophisticated APIs in 2017.

Among the other big platforms likely to release some sort of API in 2017 are Snapchat and WhatsApp — opening up potential access to hundreds of millions of millennial users and over a billion users in emerging markets.

Now more than ever, you will need to have access to developers who can focus on experimenting with APIs and develop uses that will work regardless of the size of your media company and reach the audiences you want on the platforms they are on. If you don’t have developers already embedded in your newsroom, make sure you at least have processes to enable your editorial teams to work closely with them.

So far, all the API-momentum is coming from the platforms, as they try and make it easier for third parties to engage more deeply with them. But two can play at that game. 2017 will also the see the rise in APIs being offered by news organizations.

The BBC News Labs team (among a number of other news organizations who also do this) already works with coders during hack days where they get access to an API that pulls in BBC News content that then allows it to be adapted for a range of different digital tools and platforms. By offering greater API access, news organizations can also experiment with becoming capable of being platforms themselves. APIs, if developed and deployed effectively, have the potential to release your content and make it more discoverable, distributable, and recognized as your brand than ever before.

Trushar Barot is mobile editor for BBC World Service.

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