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Who Is Talking About the Equity Impacts of APIs?

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Writing about APIs (and writing about tech in general) is mostly about hype. It is shiny-new-thing reporting: a discussion of how innovation is being implemented and what ideas are on the horizon.

So writing and meeting with API leaders in enterprise and in startups is exciting and fast and fantastical and forever moving forward, so there is an intrinsic hope and optimism that is easy to get swept up in.

However, part of the job of reporting on innovation with APIs requires an honest appraisal that looks at how the new tech or API best practices could be adopted by others. And part of the job of reporting is also about thinking through the implications of the tech or approach if it does get widespread adoption. Every now and again, as an API tech writer and industry analyst, you come across enough red flags to shelve the hope and think more cautiously about the implications. You pull on the thread of a story and wonder whether this is a path we want to go down.

Two example stories I have written in the past few years still resonate this balance for me and remind me to take tech reporting seriously and, despite the pressure to publish a news brief quickly, I am encouraged to think through the role APIs are playing in creating the sort of society we will soon live in. As the APIdays co-organizers FABERNOVEL quote on their website, it is not that the future is already here: it is that it is unevenly distributed.

Writing About How APIs are Helping Force People Out of Homes

About a year into my regular API reporting, I was asked to cover Appcelerator’s API Builder, aimed at helping customers reduce time-to-market bottlenecks. At the time, the only case of a customer using the API Builder tech involved Safeguard Properties, which at the time was being sued by the Illinois District Attorney for allegedly using poor data standards to illegally throw home owners out of their properties so as to declare the properties abandoned and ready for repossession. I was worried that the new faster-time-to-market use of data that Appcelerator enables meant their customer, Safeguard Properties, could embed their poor data standard into their mobile applications and strong-arm even more struggling home owners.

Writing the article gave me some worry. I didn’t want to attack a new startup that was looking to grow by working with established companies. But the situation reminded me of what APIdays Paris closing keynote Bernard Stiegler has previously written about:

The genuine object of debate raised by the 2008 financial crisis ought to be how to overcome the short-termism to which we have been led by a consumerism intrinsically destructive of all genuine investment in the future, a short-termism which has systematically, and not accidentally, been translated into decomposition of investment into speculation.

While Stiegler is talking about the short-termism of speculative market trading, it reminded me of how, as a startup, we can be in a rush to sign up our first enterprise clients to use our powerful tech, and in doing so inadvertently (or without a care) replicate power differentials already firmly established. These power differentials place those already marginalized at greater risk, and — with the help of new technologies — can marginalize even more at a faster rate.

While Appcelerator has worked with non-profits like the National Military Family Association, they do not appear to be at the stage of reinvesting any of their profits in a way that other API-based companies, like industry leaders SumAll and Twilio, have done. Both have .org initiatives (SumAll.org and Twilio.org) that receive a portion of the API company’s profits so that their API tech can be applied to local, community-driven problem solving initiatives (in SumAll’s case, and in stark contrast to Appcelerator, this includes predicting and visualizing family homelessness in New York City).

Perhaps, given that Appcelerator still promote Safeguard Properties as a key customer on their website, they could take a similar approach. (By the way, Safeguard Properties reached a settlement of $1 million with the Illinois District Attorney which will be shared with Illinois residents who filed complaints about being forcibly removed from their homes. Their settlement also agreed on new terms for identifying foreclosed properties and to ensure court orders are in place before entering or seizing property.)

Writing About How APIs Track People Without Their Clear Consent

A second story I wrote earlier this year focused on a new Geofencing API standard being developed by the W3C. This story worried me because it seemed to replicate a fairly common pattern amongst new tech: let’s build it quick and ship it and worry about the privacy/equity/security implications later.

The new geofencing API standard allows applications to continue to collect data, even after the application has been closed by the end user. At the time, the draft standards stipulated that the section on privacy standards would be written up later (today, the latest draft from October 2015 still shows most of the section on privacy and security remains as a TODO). Data privacy and security advocate Electronic Frontier Foundation did recognize the difficulties for a technical standard to include policy implications such as privacy and their major concerns around end user permissions seem to have been adopted in the current version of the draft standards, but for me it was a sign of a worrying trend where we are building tech and new-fangled APIs with a lot of power for surveillance, data insight, or faster product and service deployment without having an open discussion about the equity, ethical and societal impacts of these approaches.

Writing About How APIs Can Create More Equitable Solutions

That’s why it’s so encouraging to see the work of people like APIdays Paris speaker elf Pavlik, who has proposed a social economy working group for W3C. In proposing the group, Pavlik writes:

In this group we work on various web technologies needed for managing all kinds of economic relationships between individuals and organizations. While recognizing nowadays dominance of commerce, we take here more general approach which gives equal attention to all kind of non-commercial approaches, including Social Economy, Sharing/Collaborative Economy, Solidarity Economy, Informal Economy etc.

The group, which will make use of linked data technologies and previous work on value flows, will be formed if enough W3C members vote for its establishment and will commence in January 2016.

While waiting for it to be formed, Pavlik continues to press ahead in one area: food networks. He is currently encouraging collaboration on food network interoperability which will establish open standards for sharing information on food services, food production, distribution and consumption.

Leveraging APIs to address food insecurity has been a pet project for another APIdays speaker as well, Shelby Switzer.

Working with Code for Atlanta, Switzer needed a way to enable a RubyonRails app to spin up a way to map food insecurity (measured as lack of access to grocery stores and healthy food outlets). With Code for Atlanta not having any funding, but needing a community resource to be maintained, Switzer created API-in-a-box:

API-in-a-Box is exactly what it sounds like. Say you have a handful of CSV files that you need a searchable API for. Put those files in Github repository, spin up this API-in-a-Box, and there you go! A REST hypermedia API that utilizes Elasticsearch’s killer searching.

Switzer uses her API tech skills and leading new technologies like Docker containers to address social inequities and help community organizations to advocate for much needed healthy food resources in poor and under-resourced neighborhoods.

This is the sort of opportunity that APIs can create, according to another keynote APIdays Paris speaker, Steven Willmott, CEO and cofounder of 3scale. In a Medium post last year, Willmott asks:

How to put the power of these technologies into the hands of more than just the few? Not as consumers, but as creators and participants?

Willmott argues that as APIs become more automated and more simply accessible, “there is massive unrecognized potential to democratize powerful programming in a way that has not been possible before.”

Recently, we have been looking at the potential for APIs to increase labor inequities or to build soulless future cities. APIdays Paris speakers like Bernard Stiegler, Shelby Switzer, elf Pavlik and Steve Willmott will all be helping to push our thinking forward, to help us consider the equity impacts of our work, and to challenge us to reimagine potential futures where we can all have greater autonomy and opportunity.

Written by Mark Boyd for APIdays.

APIdays Conferences
Created in 2012 in Paris, APIdays has organized 41 events in 11 countries, gathering over 20,000 attendees and 1,500+ speakers. Its aim is to democratize and evangelize the opportunities and the use of APIs for corporations and businesses to fully enter the next wave of the digital transformation, the era of automation.

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