Simple API Explanation with Examples

Emma Butler
Emma Butler
Jun 28, 2019 · 1 min read
A bridge

You may have heard the acronym API tossed around, even if you’re not in tech. APIs have been around for over two decades, but why only in recent years have people been buzzing about APIs? And what even is an API?


We use APIs every day whether or not we know it. For example, we use them when calling Ubers, searching on Netflix, exploring Instagram and querying Google to “Find food near me.”


Each of these companies, Uber, Netflix, Instagram, and Google has its own server where they store information (think a big computer with no monitor or mouse-- just this big piece of equipment that stores a whole lot of data). Websites and applications connect to these servers wirelessly to get information from them. 


Quick example: Want to refresh your feed on Instagram? You use your finger to pull down. You see a spinny wheel for a hot second. Then voila: a new set of pictures appear from your followers.


You just sent a request to Instagram’s API. The application on your phone “talked” to the servers at Instagram giving them a set of parameters (i.e. choose recent pictures from people I follow). It basically said “I need new pictures-- I’ve already seen that dog eating cat food. Give me a new set of grams. But by the way, they need to be photos from only people I follow. And recent photos too.”

API actually stands for “Application Programming Interface” which makes sense. Each application has its own place where all the programmed data is stored. And the access/query/ that data, whether you’re searching for the right Netflix show in Netflix’s server based on your preference parameters like  “RomCom” and “Trending” or need to communicate through Uber to the Uber drivers where you are and where you’re going, you need to use an API

APIs are the foundation for every new mobile app or web app for both businesses and consumers. 

Want to build an app that needs to know your location?

Well instead of having to create Google Maps all over again from scratch, you can connect your app to Google Maps. And how do you do that? Connect it to Google Maps’ API.


Some larger companies have public APIs, meaning anyone can have access to them. This is great for new app builders because now they don’t have to start from ground zero. 


Let me give you another example. Kayak, Orbitz, Expedia and other travel sites that aggregate flights from a range of different airlines use those airline company’s API’s. If I search on Orbitz for “Flights to Boston” on “July 19th,” “non-stop,” Orbitz uses those parameters to query the APIs of American Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, Delta (and etc.)  for corresponding flight information.

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