Why Open APIs Matter: Tech Partnerships Power Development
If you’re one of the millions of people who use their mobile to send money or pay a bill, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about how your phone connects to the mobile network, and then to a financial service provider, and then to the recipient of your cash. But as software developers, this ‘pipeline’ for transmitting data is crucial: If information doesn’t flow smoothly through it from Point A to Point B, mobile users on multiple continents lose out on the chance to access basic financial services. That’s why we’re so excited about the opportunities created by something called an “open API”. It has the potential to give developers across the globe a chance to share their mobile financial service ideas - and connect to this pipeline - quickly, cost-effectively, and on a massive scale.
First, a word on APIs: Short for “application programming interface”, the term refers to a set of functions or routines that specifies how different software components should interact. In simple language, an API is a basic ‘how-to’ guide for developers; it tells us how we should connect the various parts of a mobile service to each other. An open API is a guide that’s publicly available - it allows any developer, anywhere in the world, to link up their service to the bigger pipeline of mobile service delivery. To be concrete: If you’re a young software developer in Lagos, and you have an amazing app that lets merchants process payments via mobile money, you don’t need to have high-level ties with the mobile network’s top brass to get your app up and running. With an open API that’s available online, you can plug in your app and start testing it out right away.
Photo courtesy of IMTFI/Flickr
The potential for open APIs to drive innovation in the mobile money space is tremendous, but since the concept is still fairly new to the sector, it’s important to get the basics right before launching open API platforms on a large scale. From a developer perspective, there are several key elements which we believe are crucial to the success of any open API ‘ecosystem’. Here are three from our shortlist:
1. Open APIs must be well documented, well defined and stable. In plain language, this means that the guidelines for developers should be clear, and they shouldn’t change without warning. If we want to democratize the mobile money sector so that young programmers in Lagos or Lahore can launch their own remittance apps or micro-payment platforms, we need to ensure that the instructions for building the ‘pipes’ between these services and larger mobile network ‘pipelines’ are easy to follow, and consistent over time. As developers, we know that there’s nothing more frustrating than preparing to launch a key new service, only to find that the API set-up has just changed, necessitating weeks (and sometimes months) of code re-writes.
2. Processes to gain access to Open APIs must be clear and widely available online. If I’m all ready to link my point-of-sale payment service with a cell network’s mobile money platform and I can’t easily find the instructions, my concept may never make it to market - a huge risk in a sector that needs more local innovation. This may sound like an obvious point, but a surprising number of supposedly ‘open’ APIs are in fact difficult to access. And when mobile networks appear monolithic, and there isn’t a hotline we can call or a contact point we can email, many developers get discouraged and throw in the towel - or launch their services on a much smaller scale, which greatly limits their potential for impact.
3. Open APIs should make it easy to track usage and user data. In the age of Big Data analytics and transparent data sharing, we as developers (and as members of emerging-market communities) want good feedback loops: We want to understand how many mobile users are accessing our API-linked services and what their usage patterns are so that we can constantly improve the quality of these services: If nobody is using the ‘rate your experience’ part of my mobile loan app, but everyone loves the ‘check my loan balance’ feature, I should know that so I can target my time and effort toward enhancing the strongest parts of my service.
Of course, a successful open API ecosystem is a two-way street: We can make endless requests to the creators of the APIs (major banks, mobile networks, or other players), but as developers, we also need to commit to playing an active role in the process. First, we can help achieve this success by being patient: National mobile networks aren’t always as agile as small start-ups; they may take some time to ensure that the right regulatory and security frameworks are in place before they open their API doors to third parties. We can also strive to be community-minded, thinking beyond our own specific apps or ideas to work with our peers, in order to create a common set of API standards which we can collectively take to our partners in the telecoms and financial sectors. If we’re strategic and think long-term, we’ll stand a greater chance of seeing banks and mobile networks open up their APIs to the wider community.
In a world where open APIs are the rule, rather than the exception, the rate of innovation among developers will be rapid and robust. Anyone with a promising mobile service idea will face far fewer go-to-market barriers. And for the millions who use mobile financial services, the range of options will be far more diverse, locally relevant, and personalized, which will ideally lead to much greater levels of financial inclusion. Tech talk aside, this is the most important common goal we aim to achieve.