The University of API White Paper: Looking At APIs In Higher Education

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I spend a great deal of time looking at new APIs from companies, institutions, and government agencies during my weekly monitoring of the API space, and over the last couple years, I've come across an increasing number of APIs tht are out of higher educational institutions around the world. It began with a centralized developer area at the University of Washington (UW), and then I saw the same from UC Berkeley, with more recently noticing the impressive conversion of 250+ services from a traditional Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), to a more modern web API approach, at Brigham Young University (BYU).

Along the way I began seeing that APIs at higher education institutions were going to be an important piece of the overall API puzzle, and as I do with any research area, I setup a Github repository (, and began tracking on universities who were doing anything interesting with APIs, no matter how small. I now track on twelve separate higher education institutions that have active API efforts, and I have been engaging in active conversations with two of the institutions, regarding their strategy, working to understand how I can provide any guidance, but also learn from each team about the unique challenges higher education institutions face when designing, deploying, manage, and even evangelize their APIs.

My university API research has now reached a level, where I have enough material to produce a white paper, so over the last couple months, I’ve worked to compile all of my work into a single downloadable narrative. As with all of my API research, this white paper will change often, as my work is never done. I’ll keep adding institutions, and evolving my understanding an awareness of APIs in higher education as long as there is meaningful activity to be found. The reason I produced this white paper, before I finished other papers I’m working on for payment APIs, and APIs in the federal government, is because I feel like higher education is going to be critical to the futrue of not just APIs, but also the overall web literacy of our society.

Higher Education Is Front Line For Web Literacy
A large part of our worlds have moved online. Whether it is entertainment at home, education in the classroom, or out and about on our mobile devices, we are living more of our lives online—increasing the imperative that we are empowering every student with at least a minimum amount of web literacy. Think of web literacy, like understanding your personal finances, every single adult must have a certain level of awareness of how our financial system operates. You don't need to understand the inner workings of banking and global markets, but you need to know how to setup a bank account, apply for credit or debit cards, balance your checkbook and pay your taxes. As our lives move online and our digital footprint expands, our data is fast becoming the online currency of Internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, increasing the need for us to understand the mechanisms at play in this new digital economy, and empower each student to take back some control.

Web literacy goes beyond just what you will need to know in your job and career, it is what you will need to be a literate citizen, and use government services, conduct business, and even interact with your friends and community around you. Just as higher education has played a significant role in preparing our youth for the real world in the past, it will have to take the lead in providing them with the basic web literacy skills they will need to engage online in everyday scenarios, as well as the specialty career trajectories. API is a layer of web literacy, one that allows the tech savvy individual to peel back how the Internet works, and configure, tweak, and make the Internet work for them--not the other way around.

Providing A Blueprint For Other University To Follow
As I spent more time looking at universities, I wanted to create a static snapshot of the current state of APIs in higher education, share some of what I learned looking through the leading universities in the space, and also apply some of my wider knowledge from the API industry beyond the university campus--in hopes university leaders are listening.

I want this paper to be a blueprint that any university CIO or CTO, student or energetic professor can pick up, and get an idea of what is going on across other universities when it comes to APIs. I’m fascinated by what I’m seeing out of BYU, UW, UC Berkeley, and UM, and as I do with the rest of the space, I’m looking forward to monitoring their progress, and having more conversations about how we can make university API efforts more successful.

I will continue to update this white paper as I find more examples of institutions putting to APIs to work. While much of this research is rooted in what I'm seeing across these 12 higher education institutions, there is still much that is speculation based on my experience, and as I find more concrete examples in the wild I'll expand and add to this paper.

I can't emphasize enough, the important role that higher education will play in not just equipping the next generation with the web literacy skills they will need to be successful, but also help take the lead in defining the underlying pipes that will drive our increasingly digital economy. APIs are not good by default, they can be used is some very bad ways, and I'm confident that if higher education take a lead in the space, the patterns that can be established will provide a healthier path forward than if we let Silicon Valley continue to exclusively lead.

You can find my white paper over at, and download the PDF if you prefer. As with any other research area on the API Evangelist network, please feel free to let me know what's missing, or if you find any spelling or grammar mistakes, you can submit as issue, or if you are feeling adventurous you can submit a pull request with the desired changes.