And that, my friends, is the Personal API

GIF thanks to the great Sunset Terry!

GIF thanks to the great Sunset Terry!

A couple of days ago the Programmable Web wrote an article about the work BYU is doing to give students more control over their data. The idea undergirding this is the concept of a personal API, what exactly that means remains in a certain amount of flux, but Tim Klapdor does a pretty phenomenal job capturing some of the core principles, and I quote:

  • a way to claim sovereignty over our own identity online
  • a first step towards independence
  • a way to create distributed systems
  • it provides a system for choice
  • it could create an enhanced form filler
  • improves transactional behaviours online
  • allows users to assign a death to data
  • backend for creating of my own operating system
  • fix the problems of the web
  • mechanism for us to make decisions about the web
  • it will be foundational to the “next web”
  • it needs to be accessible

What’s more, BYU’s CIO, Kelly Flanagan, frames the Personal API (PAPI) as part of their institutional approach to managing personal data at BYU in this epic post on Indie Ed”-“Tech.

…giving people a personal API and letting them control their data, doesn’t mean that they get to control the university’s data. A PAPI lets people control the data that is theirs. For example, their phone number is their data. Their grades, on the other hand belong to the University. In addition, if students exercise their right to not authorize university access to needed personal information, the university is not obligated to fulfill the desired student request. University policy and process must still be followed.

Fact is, the personal API becomes a means of re-thinking the ways in which we empower our communities to manage, maintain, and control their personal data as part of the life-long learning process. It is a truly radical way of re-thinking the foundations of centralized IT, and I’m really excited the work BYU’s IT department is doing in this regard is gaining some traction. It is remarkable. And the institutional vision is reinforced by at least one student’s vision, Andrew Rikard, of what the personal API could mean for him:

At the core of the personal API is the radical mission to put control over data (and its access) in the hands of students. This is both a pedagogical act and a creative opportunity, informing students that they can access their own information as well as create interfaces to do with that data what they please. It gives them a seat at the tables where the edtech powers sit, moving them one step closer to a status of equality rather than that of a passive consumer.

I love the way in which APIs become one way to try and understand and empower literacy and fluency around data in higher ed and beyond.

Add to this a recent post by George Kroner, the LMS fan fiction god, who was post about “A Flexible and Personal Learning Environment” turned me onto this study from the Netherlands about what this digital learning environment might look like. What’s so cool about all of this is that the time might be right to explore what these new learning environments might look like, and while I totally heed the great D’Arcy Norman’s words of caution…

I do think any API architecture worth its salt would ultimately disassemble the LMS once and for all 🙂

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6 Responses to And that, my friends, is the Personal API

  1. Matt Gold says:

    This is great, Jim. I am wondering how the emphasis on individual publishing meshes with ideas about community platforms, though. When publishing happens at the level of the individual person, pushing content out to various content platforms, do we lose the sense of publishing *within* a community? I am thinking here specifically about a platform like the CUNY Academic Commons, which attempts to create a community platform for the 24-campus CUNY system. We will be talking with you soon about how to integrate a Reclaim project into that system, but I do wonder about this tension between individual publishing and community presence. I know it’s not a zero sum game, but I am wondering whether this issue has come up at all in your discussions with BYU and others, as community, at least to me, involves more than simply meshing together a bunch of discrete, individualized APIs.

    • Reverend says:

      Hey Matt,

      Welcome back to the bava! One of the things a student at Georgetown mentioned while we were thinking through some of this is how does the “personal” vision of all this exclude the community, and I think it’s a really good question. One of the purely technical elements that has me interested in this issue is accessing and aggregating various work across the community could become more structured and easier. So, in other words, if everyone has a fairly structured space for the work they have done and are doing that can be more easily parsed and shared in various ways across a community platform. I think what is doing right now with Calypso is a really interesting model for this. They have effectively said use or your own site, but use our authoring and various blog tools to tap into the community and share more broadly. So, rather than it being versus your own hsoted wp site, it can be both through a set of community APIs that enable sharing, integration etc. I have to write a longer post on this because it starts to get at the very idea that the individual is what truly scales online to engage and become part of the communities, and those communal spaces and be flexible, loose and morphing with such a model. A syndication hub rather than predefined, robust destination. Does that make sense? The tension is real and at the heart of this, but I think the idea is that the API enables community as well as it enables more control over one’t own data—but as Tom says in the comment below, i still need to prove that 🙂

      • Tom says:

        I have been wondering about the difference between publishing *in* a place and publishing *to* a place. That might be an aspect of this. If the destination tool creates an experience that isn’t replicated in the authoring tool . . . does it matter? How much?

        Does a literal ‘reclaiming’ of the data make more sense in certain situations?

        Mostly I have lots of fairly annoying questions.

  2. Tom says:

    There is the whole business aspect of the University API and the idea of ownership*/control of the data but for me access to and using this data for creation/reflection is the most interesting opportunity. Seems there are elements of quantified self (even if it’s really qualitative) mixed with mass (self?) observation . . . it opens so many doors if people realize they are doors. I don’t know if you need to encourage it, entwine it within classes, etc. . . maybe just let it be and hope for the best.

    I don’t know if an API destroys the LMS . . . I can’t think of the major ways that a University API changes how many people teach or how the mechanical aspects of teaching play out for many. I’d be interested in how you see it happening (which is a polite way of saying- explain it!)

    *I think it’s more ownership as a large portion of the control options are likely dictated by the University. A bit like agreeing to the terms of a lease when housing it at a premium.

    • Reverend says:


      You know i agree with you entirely with the subjective, truly personable nature of the Personal API. it was one of the biggest take-aways from Davidson for me. That said, I do think that if you provide a space for folks to post, write, share across systems, the idea of any one dictating how you teach and learn begins to erode, and therein lies the promise of APIs for IT infrastructure, and the idea of alternatives and options that can making teaching better. But I have to say the vision that continues to drive my own optimism and excitement around all this was best framed by Jon Udell in his talk “The Disruptive Nature of Technology.” For him it is not so much about hyperbole and over-promising—the defining elements of my work—but about a simple set of negotiations and data sharing that should be in place but aren’t. He’s very practical about it all, and frames it in a way that makes you re-think how we handle data period. You may have already listened to it, but if not play it during your next playground workout 🙂

      I guess this goes to say I see it happening in fairly banal ways. We finally figure out some simple ways that students and faculty can plugin the various tools they already use into the work they do for school. Something simple like a workflow shift with a fair amount of agnostic publishing platforms would be interesting. Add to that the ability to thoughtful share/filter/tag where it goes, and we might have something that enables more serendipity and joy. What’s more, I think you can build it 🙂

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