As the COVID-19 pandemic has so painfully demonstrated over the last few weeks, we live in a connected world. That has been true for centuries. The Black Death probably began in Central Asia in 1338-9 and reached Europe in 1347, eventually killing somewhere between 75 and 200 million people in Eurasia.

It is not known where the so-called “Spanish” H1N1 influenza pandemic originated, but it is known that the pandemic, which lasted from January 1918 to December 1920 infected essentially every human on the planet. It is a sad feature of history that numerous pandemics of novel infectious diseases have had devasting impacts on human society.

Each infection is a connection

Each infection is a connection: the wrong kind of connection. We must use every tool at our disposal to fight these scourges. One of those tools involves the right kind of connection. The world has been wired since the second half of the nineteenth century. But for most of that time, for most people (or, indeed, companies or governments), it was far too expensive to ever even think of sending a message from one side of the world to the other.

Now, in 2020, we have reached the point in our development as a civilization in which information can travel at the speed of light around the globe and reach us virtually instantaneously whether we are in our workplaces, our homes or the move – all for the cost of a just few dollars a month. And we can use this capability to help fight COVID-19.

The covid19api.com website provides an API that allows users easy access to a range of up-to-date data about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The data are sourced from Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The CSSE provides its own near real-time dashboard.

But the exact requirements of different users vary widely and the covid19api.com API lets anyone obtain the precise information they need to construct their own custom dashboard or integrate data about the pandemic into a webpage or mobile app in the way that meets their specific purpose.

The CSSE fuses data from a variety of trusted sources such as the ministries of health around the world and presents the data as a CSV file. A CSV file is something that could have been FTPed a remote repository even in the pre-WWW days of the internet. They are perfect for ingesting into, say, a Pandas data frame running in a Python program in a Jupyter notebook, which can then be sliced and diced as required.

But if just a particular piece of information, such as the total number of new COVID-19 cases reported in the UK in the previous day, is needed for display in a dashboard or an app rather than download the whole CSV file and manually search for the data or have to write a special program to extract it, it is much easier, quicker and less error-prone to make a simple call to the relevant PI endpoint to obtain the information.

This is exactly the functionality the covid19api.com API provides. In a time of crisis such as the pandemic we are living through every millisecond counts and reducing even the smallest amount of friction in getting the right information to the right person is crucial.

This is why APIs are so important

In the past, the required information might have been hidden away in paper documents stored in a filing cabinet somewhere. Whether the information was needed by someone in an organization or by someone from outside, getting hold it was often a slow and unreliable process.

Even when information eventually started to be stored electronically, finding it was still often a frustrating and time-consuming experience. But now with the advent of the API, organizations can provide a structured way for users to discover and consume easily, conveniently and quickly the exact information they need.

Another COVID-19-related API is found at findcovidtesting.com. Their API provides the details of locations in the US that can provide COVID-19 testing. This is vital information that could be presented to users through a simple localized app or webpage, for instance, for a particular state. Because the up to date data can be pulled in via the API, it avoids the problem with static apps or webpages of stale information.

This is especially vital in a rapidly changing situation such as that around COVID-19 when being able to get absolutely accurate information at exactly the moment it is needed is vital.

If the coronavirus pandemic had occurred in 2000, there would have no REST APIs build on top of the World Wide Web internet infrastructure to enable the exchange of mission-critical information in this way (and no mobile apps for it to be consumed with).

In 1980, there was no WWW and in 1960 no internet. We are fortunate then that in 2020, APIs do connect the world. They are the glue that binds together the web-powered global economy, allowing organizations to exchange data and information with suppliers, customers, partners, regulators, government entities and other internal and external stakeholders, reliably, rapidly and on-demand.

All healthcare organizations are necessarily information organizations. The UK NHS, for instance, exposes hundreds of endpoints across 10 APIs. Without APIs, our response to COVID-19 would be slower and less effective. Tragic though the outbreak is, it would be even more tragic if we were unable to use APIs to obtain the time-sensitive information needed to inform the making of the best decisions.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a medical crisis

It is an economic one too. We have seen an unprecedentedly sharp decline in economic activity along with a huge spike in unemployment as well as financial markets in turmoil.

APIs help businesses in every aspect of the economy: banking, e-commerce, logistics, and supply chain, travel are just a few. By making businesses more efficient and responsive, they make them more sustainable, better able to weather the storm of COVID-19, better able to protect their employees and clients, and better positioned to grow again once the crisis has ended.

There is still much to be done to complete the API-ification of the web. API needs to be more performant, more secure, easier to discover and to use. This can be done through making APIs smarter, combining them with machine learning technology to create the next generation of APIs – the AIPI: the Artificially Intelligent Programming Interface.

The various Open Banking standards, such as the Berlin Group and the UK OBIE, show ways that APIs can be used to create new innovative services. Similar initiatives could be launched in areas like insurance and the exchange of medical information. In our connected, data-driven, information-saturated world, APIs are of the key tools for making our systems more reliable and resilient and thus better able to help humanity face all of the existential challenges we must deal with in the 2020s, such as climate breakdown, cybersecurity, and further pandemics.