Sunday, August 16, 2015

Legacy Power and Control Contained Within The Acronym

As I wade through government, higher educational, and scientific research, exposing valuable data, and APIs, the single biggest area of friction I encounter is the acronym. Ironically this paradigm is also reflected in the mission of API Evangelist -- helping normal people understand what the hell an Application Programming Interface is. I live in a sort of tech purgatory, I am well aware of it. 

The number one reason acronyms are used I think, is purely because we are lazy. Secondarily though, I think there is also a lot of legacy power and control represented in every acronym. These little abbreviated nuggets can be the difference between you being in the club, or not. You either understand the technology at play, or you don't. You are in the right government circles, or not. You are trained in a specific field, or you are not. I don't think people consider what they wield when they use acronyms, I think there is a lot of baked in, subconscious things going on.

One of the most important aspects of the API journey in my opinion, is that you begin to unwind a lot of the code (pun intended) that has been laid down over the years of IT operation, government policy, and research cycles. When you begin to unwind this, and make available via intuitive URL endpoints, you increase the chances a piece of data, content, or other digital resource will get put to use--something not all parties are actually interested in. Historically IT, government, and researchers wield their power and control, but locking up valuable resources, playing gatekeeper of who is in, and who is out--APIs have the potential to unwind this legacy debt.

APIs do not decode these legacy corporate, government, and institutional pools of power and control by default. You can just as easily pay it forward with an API gateway, or via an API architect who sees no value in getting to know the resources they are putting to work, let alone it's consumer(s). However if done with the right approach, APIs can provide a rich toolbox that can assist any company, institution or government agency in decoding the legacy each has built up.

You can see this play out in the recent EPA, er I mean Environment Protection Agency work I did. Who would ever know that the EPA CERCLIS API, was actually the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System API? You don't unless you are in the club, or you do the heavy lifting (clicking) to discover the fine print. I am not saying the person who named the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Information API, the RCRAInfo service, were malicious in what they are doing--this type of unconscious behavior occurs all the time.

Ultimately I do not think there is a solution for this. Acronyms do provide us with a lot of benefit, when it comes to making language, and communication more efficient. However I think, just like we are seeing play out with algorithms, we need to be more mindful of the legacy we paying forward when we use acronyms, and make sure we are as transparent as possible by providing dictionaries, glossaries, and other tooling. 

At the very least, before you use an acronym, make sure your audience will not have to work extra hard to get up to speed, and do the heavy lifting required to reach as wide as possible audience as you possibly can. It is the API way. ;-)



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