Interview: An API-a-day Keeps the… Are You Kidding?

Greg Bates, January 30th, 2013

Okay, spot the New Year’s resolution that’s different: lose weight, exercise, stop procrastinating, build one App every weekday¬†using APIs. Yeah. That last one is the focus of Purchase College student Ali Fairhurst. She’s created a website of her work, APIaday, pledging to build a new App 5 days a week through January.

In an exclusive email interview, Programmableweb looked into the project. But first, check out some of what she has created. For example, on the app built for January 24, you can look up dinosaurs. Type in Allosaurus and the data provided by Wolfram/Alpha includes a photo of a fossil, taxonomy, where it’s found, and a family tree, among many other facts.

Her first API of the year, on, you guessed it, New Years Day, uses data from Petfinder. Type in your zipcode and it locates local animal shelters complete with adorable photos of individual pets that make you just want to take them home…

To take another from January 25, the app shows a US map sectioned by state, which light up as you roll over them. With data provided by the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, each state provides a detailed listing of weather advisories and warnings.

Programmableweb: Where did you get the idea?

Ali Fairhurst: The idea actually came from one of my professors. I was taking a course called “Social Software” which very much revolved around the use of APIs (namely Twitter and Flickr). The professor noticed that I both enjoyed and excelled in this area, so when I was having trouble picking a suitable senior project idea he had no trouble coming up with “API a Day.”

PW: What skills/programming experience did you have before you started?

AF: Before starting this project I was already proficient in HTML, CSS, JavaScript (plus JQuery), and PHP. I also dabble in Flash/ActionScript and I’m pretty comfortable with most of the Adobe Creative Suite. As a freshman entering the New Media program I was mostly interested in graphic design and digital illustration, but the past two years I’ve developed a greater interest in programming.

PW: Which app was the most interesting or difficult to build?

AF: I think the most interesting app to build was from January 15- Data.gov Earthquakes, perhaps because it is the most visual of them all. It was exciting when I got to that last line of code that transformed a plain Google Map into something much more meaningful.

The most difficult app to build was from January 22- Spore. At that point I felt like many of the apps had similar functionalities and formats, so I wanted to mix things up a bit. To do so I decided to set up a basic voting system using MySQL- a skill I’m not totally comfortable with. I ran into some problems (and even caused my main site to break temporarily) and the app still has some quirks, but overall I’m satisfied with my decision to step outside of my comfort zone.

PW: ¬†You’ve spelled out your goals to build up your skills, shed light on data available and demonstrate how data can be transferred. How will you measure whether or not the project has succeeded?

AF: In terms of building up programming skills I’ve definitely become more efficient in the use REST APIs. I feel much more comfortable with communications between scripting languages (PHP and JS), which will surely carry over well to other programming endeavors. As far as promoting “big data” goes, I think that I’ve done a decent job of spreading awareness to coders and non-coders alike via sharing daily projects on Twitter and Facebook. The fact that the project has reached beyond the sphere of Purchase College and has garnered interest from a number of professionals in the field has already led me to believe that it has succeeded.

PW: How long do you plan to keep it up?

AF: Officially, the project will only continue through the end of January. But after that I’ll be revisiting a number of the daily projects to further develop their designs and/or functionality. I will also be writing a thesis that discusses the project as well as a critical overview of open systems (APIs, open source, open governments, etc.).

PW: Lastly, you’re in your senior year. What’s next?

AF: Right now I have no specific plans and would mostly just like to make it through the semester in one piece, haha. But ideally after I graduate I’d like to find a job at some sort of tech company or in a web development department.

PW: Thanks, Ali.

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Executive Editor, ProgrammableWeb. Author, Map Scripting 101. Lover, APIs.