Maps, Pipes, and Data: How APIs and external data can improve service delivery

By combining and analysing data from various sources, it’s possible to generate novel insights that can improve service delivery and help to improve outcomes. Kasra Aghajani uses data, APIs, and his coding skills to create lightweight but effective applications for Get the Data’s clients.

The world is full of exciting and freely available data, some of which could very well be useful for your organisation. You might want to use government statistics to better target interventions by demographic or location. Or perhaps an NGO has published open-source data that could help your organisation to predict outcomes better.

An API is a way of getting data from one place to another. API stands for “application programming interface”, and it allows different computer programs to speak to one another. If you imagine an external dataset as a reservoir, then APIs are the pipes that carry the information to where you can use it. By using APIs, you can save time and effort compared to manually downloading and processing data from websites, and you can also automate the process of retrieving and using data from external sources.

While APIs are highly functional and efficient in facilitating data exchange, they can be challenging for non-technical users to interact with directly. To make the data accessible to end-users, a user-friendly interface, such as a web application, is often built using a framework such as R Shiny. This allows the data to be collated, analysed, and presented visually and intuitively in a web app.

One of the most exciting things APIs can do is collect data from multiple sources and collate it to produce new data. To illustrate how this works, let’s look at a project that Get the Data did for the Georgia Primary Care Association (GPCA).

GPCA came to Get the Data and asked us if we could provide a tool that would show how long clients would need to travel to access their nearest healthcare provider. After doing an exploratory data analysis, we devised a simple, easy-to-use solution. By combining data from the US Postal Service with a list of clinics and healthcare centres in Georgia, we created a tool that allows users to click on a ZIP code in an interactive map and then see the average time taken to drive to the nearest healthcare centre.

Using data from the latest US Census and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and overlaying them on a GIS (a geographic information system, a way of visualising data associated with a geographic location – think Google Maps), Jack added functionality that allows users to click on any county in Georgia to see information about the area’s demographics and the healthcare needs of the population. This is a good example of how combining data from different domains (healthcare, demographics, and geography, in this instance) can yield new insights.

These tools help the GPCA identify challenges, allowing them to plan more effectively and target resources more efficiently. The tools were created by taking data from external datasets, cleaning it up, doing some analysis, and then building a user-friendly web app (which can be accessed through any browser) so that users can access the information quickly, easily, and without time-consuming or expensive training. They give users access to the information they need when they need it.

In the next piece in this series, I’ll look at some other interesting ways that APIs can improve your organisation’s outcomes and what machine learning might bring to data analysis.

If you would like to learn more about how external data and Get the Data’s custom-made apps can help your organisation or would like to know a bit more about our range of services and what we can do for your organisation, then please contact Alan or Jack.