APIs will soon understand us better than we understand ourselves

By Ross Mason , written on July 26, 2013

From The News Desk

Back in the Stone Age, before your mom was on Facebook, we were using APIs to share photos, exchange contact information and keep up with news. APIs are the key enablers to the current mobile and Web application revolutions, and Facebook was just the beginning. Today, there is significantly more data in the cloud -- data that can be used to suss out what we like, watch, buy, and even what we might do with our friends later. With this information, it’s possible to track everything from how much energy your house uses, to where you drove the last time you used your car, to how well you slept last night. While you often have some control over this data, you're not the one collecting it and can't prevent others from using it for their own purposes.

Many APIs are benevolent in nature, using data to make our lives better, or at least easier. Singly (an API that smooths the process of incorporating personal data into new applications) and the Human API (an API platform for human health data), are examples of APIs that aggregate data about you from quantified-self data trackers such as FitBit and Nike Fuelband, as well as the information you share and relationships you keep on social networks.

Want to map the intersection of my social and professional networks? No problem. How about figure out what you're influenced by and whom you influence? Easy. How about understanding how exercise affects your mood? It’s all possible. APIs like Singly allow developers to create a range of applications from knowing more about their users to creating a more useful and relevant experience.

However, not all sites driven by APIs use their power for good. Spokeo makes it easy to stalk people, using both social and traditional information sources. While positioned as a white pages service, Spokeo (as the name suggests) is a little creepy. It knows all sorts of personal things such as where you live, your family tree, and your contact details -- depending on how much you have shared online. Sites such as exist to show people the risks of social over-sharing. As the number of APIs continues to explode, are we all at risk of having more sensitive information exposed online?

Everyone from energy companies, car manufacturers, insurance, telecoms and banking are co-opting APIs to create new services. For example, American insurance companies have begun rewarding customers for being safe drivers, which is made possible by installing a simple plug-and-play device in your car that tracks its speed, location, and even how hard the driver hits the brakes. It beams this information from the car to the cloud through an API in real-time. This data then influences whether your premium goes up, down, or remains the same. Consumer banks are offering new services for mobile users such as making deposits by taking a picture of a check and person-to-person instant payments with just an email address, which APIs make possible.

The New Enterprise is emerging, unlocking data to create new services for consumers and partners through APIs. The difference between these enterprises and social networks is that enterprises understand the risks of not securing data and, thus, implement heavy regulations to ensure they don’t share sensitive information. Many of the new services and applications you're using today are likely enabled through APIs. If you have watched live TV via your iPad or booked a car using a mobile app, you are reaping the benefits of enterprise APIs.

But what happens next is even more interesting. As we head into the "Internet of Things," new "smart" devices will connect the physical space we inhabit with APIs. Smart home appliances are now on the market that know what’s in our fridge and what we consume. Our TVs already know what we like to watch. What if Safeway opens up my rewards card data? Building a pretty complete picture of what my family consumes (and when) isn't just possible, it's child's play.

If more of the data about us is opened up, marketing will get smarter. What you buy, how you buy and when you consume will become known; it’s just a matter of influencing why you buy.

For example, if Amazon could figure out how much chocolate my family consumes (it’s a lot!) it could set up a recurring delivery for me. Or it could go a lot further and build a consumption profile of everything my household consumes and then ship refills -- from soap to milk -- as we run out. Over time, it could preempt our needs based on the buying behavior of similar households (demographic, income, age of children, pets, etc.) and make suggestions on products to switch to based on market trends, campaigns, and what other people are doing, all in real-time. The notion of grocery shopping could easily become a novelty, rather than a necessity.

Of course, just as the integration of APIs into a Brave New "Internet of things" World will make everyone's lives easier, it could also make them a lot scarier. As life becomes more automated, and more complex in its automation, the need to track the intentionality of that automation becomes more important. In other words, as APIs know more about to make our lives easier, we have to make sure that knowledge is being put to good use. It's not just Luddite paranoia that questions whether some data should be left off the grid.

It’s inevitable that APIs will reveal even more about us than they do today, and this knowledge will be used to create more targeted and useful services for us. I’d love not to have to go to the supermarket every week or queue up to renew my driver’s license. Social networks were just the beginning for APIs. As enterprises start to open up their data (over secure channels), the possibilities for automating the mundane and creating new innovations are unbound.

At that point APIs will understand us better than we understand ourselves.