Using the internet as your database

Guest Posts

24 August, 2011

Posted by Syd Lawrence


Back when the internet was first created, it was created for researchers to share their information. With the open web and open technologies you can easily and simply share information. This information could be useful in many many ways.

From a researchers point of view this is brilliant, being able to find out information quickly and simply. However I am not a researcher, I am a developer. From my point of view this is even more awesome.

I can quickly and easily take someone elses information and make something new from it. APIs are just this. Think of them as your very own database of information to use.

Using APIs you can create some fantastic mashups. Take for example Slipstream‘s They are using Twitter’s database to show tweets about the Glastonbury music festival. Or there is the world famous

I can quickly and easily take someone else’s information and make something new from it.¬†APIs are just this. Think of them as your very own database of information to use.

Not all services offer an API. For those that don’t you can use tools such as YQL. Take for example The Orange Grove by the guys over at Marmalade on Toast. This site uses local weather data from YQL to position the sun / moon accordingly and the wind speed. Or Rob Hawkes’ Twitter sentiment tool.

Using YQL you can even really simply scrape simple websites.

Now APIs aren’t just about data, they are also about tools and services. There are APIs for facial recognition, video encoding, even a lolcat API.

Popular APIs include:

For a list of nearly 4000 APIs, check out the programmable web.

Of course you are using other people’s content, so you must respect their terms & conditions, if not they certainly have the right to ask you to stop and more.

Real world examples

Now I know what you are thinking, what real world examples are there? Apart from numerous advertising campaigns pulling in data from countless sources, you also have everyday apps using APIs. Take a look at Instagram, not only does it provide it’s own API but it also uses Foursquare’s API in the process. Many apps use various APIs but what about our clients? How can we add cool uses of APIs into our client sites? Well look at the list below for inspiration:

  • SkiFix use an external source for their weather.
  • Harrods Estates use an external data source for their local school listings.
  • Carlsberg use APIs to pull in all their activity across the various social networks.
  • Clarks use various APIs to pull in activity about their brand from various social networks.
  • Then there is the Google Maps API. Probably one of the most used APIs. A great example of that is Jarred Christmas‘s site.
  • Not to mention lanyrd, which is built on top of the Twitter API.

Have I missed any cool APIs? List them in the comments.

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  • Peter Bowyer


    This is a good article on using data sources in mashups, but I’m curious how you’re defining ‘open data’ Syd? Most of these services aren’t open in the sense of ‘free access to the data’ – as you note many have restrictive T&C’s, and some have pricing plans. This isn’t open in the sense of ‘OpenGov’ data – my feeling is we need another term such as ‘permitted-use’ data sources.

    I can’t quite nuance the difference (and will leave that to another commenter) but this is different to the open web, where public domain or CC-licensed content is available to all.

  • Author

    Syd Lawrence


    @Peter Bowyer
    I agree, but I struggled to find the right words for it. I have changed the title :)
    I guess I was just trying to glorify the title… sorry

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