Everywhere we turn in our personal or professional life, we’re bombarded with the promise of more data. But that data isn’t valuable unless we have the right tools to do something about it. How do you bring together huge amounts of data in real time, understand what it means, and decide how to act on it?
APIs are a key part of the answer. APIs – or application programming interfaces – help systems communicate with each other and share data, even if they weren’t built by the same developer.
JP Wiggins, 3Gtms vice president of logistics, sat down with Logistics Management to clear up what APIs are, what they look like in action, their flexibility, and why we’re still in the Wild West when it comes to integrations and standards. You can read the full interview with Logistics Management here.
LM: What’s an API?
JP: An API is a generic term for how two different systems communicate with each other. The earliest and oldest example that we’re all familiar with is EDI, which basically centers on physically passing files in predetermined formats back and forth. In most cases, EDI is the generic term used to identify the transaction set of data being passed. In transportation, the common sets are tender, status, freight bills, etc.
LM: How does an API differ from EDI?
In many ways, they do the same exact thing. But these days, an API implies real-time two-way communication compared to the old EDI method where the file is written and then sent and then read and responded to and sent back, which all took time. What’s different is that with JSON or the XML APIs, you can pass additional data sets that are not restricted to the EDI format. For example, companies often like to get proof of delivery documents from their carriers, but there’s no EDI format to do that.
At 3Gtms, we created an API that allows us to pass that document back and forth. This is just one example of how an API is more of a program that can be integrated with some back and forth, and a lot more flexibility.
LM: What are some of the API-related challenges that logistics professionals need to consider?
We’re still in the Wild West of APIs right now. Integrations between two companies aren’t static; they’re living, breathing, and changing. Everyone out there is creating APIs, but there is no standard on how you create your API. For example, what happens when you’re dealing with two different solutions that have two different systems created by two different entities? Or, what happens when one company upgrades its systems? Can it ensure that it didn’t break the upgrade? And if the upgrade does break, who’s going to fix it?
These are some valid issues that companies are grappling with right now. Basically, when you’re planning for an integration between two different companies, you want an integration that’s being maintained and supported. Don’t just plan on writing it once and forgetting about it. That’s a fatal mistake.
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