Silk's New API Features Highlight Startup Trend

Data visualization service Silk has released a number of new features, all of which are also available as new functionalities in its API. Mapping, additional graph options, pinning and programmatically updating Google Sheets Integration are all now possible.

How Silk is evolving the services and features it offers points to a new growth approach for startups: Once an initial set of core features is developed, the second generation of features begins to rely on external APIs to extend the product and allow it to be integrated more efficiently with the end user’s other cloud-based tools and workflows.

Mapping Visualizations

“Our mapping visualization feature sits right at the juncture of the savvy developer and the growth hacker who are using APIs to extract data, so it really is a wide audience,” says Alex Salkever, head of business development at Silk.

The initial mapping feature can auto-generate pins for locations based on city names, addresses or latitude/longitude coordinates. Future upgrades plan to allow users to choose the color of the pins and to create area maps, rather than global presentations.

ABOVE: A Silk map embed showing all cities participating in 2014’s Smart Cities Expo in Barcelona, Spain

“We use Google’s API specifically for location with just a city name and country — for example, Munich, Germany,” says Salkever. “If you want to add an image, you can go to map view, then when the map pins show you can add a tag, and add the image, which would then be added to the pins. Users really love this feature for embeds on third-party apps.”

Salkever says the media are making use of the new functionality to create interactive data journalism projects. U.S. journal The Atlantic, for example, used a live Silk embed to chart the Ebola outbreak.

Salkever says that while the Google Maps API may lead to some issues on costs of API calls as it scales its business, the ease of use and mapping coverage were important in its API selection. “OpenStreetMap is fabulous, but it has very poor coverage outside of the U.S. Also, we really saw the Google Maps API product evolving, and we really wanted to go with that,” he says.

Scatter Plots and Pinning

Other new features being made available include more advanced graphing capabilities such as scatter plots.

“It’s not like Tableau, but it is getting closer!” admits Salkever. “People are starting to use this for very rapid analysis of data. In that way it is very easy to correlate actions with numbers. If we were to flip this one, we would get a different analysis, so this lets you do scatter analysis across different axes. This is very handy."

ABOVE: A doughnut chart showing which API categories on ProgrammableWeb had the most updates in 2014

As Silk moves closer to its vision of being a Facebook or Tumblr for data, it has also introduced a pinning feature to allow widgets and key information to be replicated across all related pages and to enable widgets to dynamically respond to whichever page they appear on: updating Twitter feeds, adding copyright or crediting sources, or including responsive navigation menus.

Google Sheets Integration

Last year, Noam Schwartz, head of business development at SimilarWeb, talked about how his company enabled fast growth of its API at ProgrammableWeb’s APIcon U.K. industry event. One of the key techniques Schwartz’s team used was to create Google Sheets tools for specific industry sectors, each drawing on SimilarWeb’s API capabilities.

Silk expects faster growth by enabling API integrations with Google Sheets. To start, it has used the Google Sheets API to enable one-step data visualization directly from a Google Sheets URL.

Building New Features That Rely on External APIs

Two growth strategies are clear from the raft of new features that Silk offers, and APIs sit at the heart of both.

First, as Silk is adding new features, it is also adding these functionalities to its API, enabling users to continue to access the service and products programmatically as well as by direct interface.

That approach is fairly obvious and is about creating a consistent experience for end users.

More interesting is the second growth strategy that is becoming clear: that for startups like Silk to grow and scale, new features will tend to have an integration focus. These are features that bring external products — like Google Maps — into the core product, using APIs to enable end users to access mapping (for example) from within Silk.

They are also features that let Silk play well with other tools likely to be in the end user’s cloud-based toolkit — products such as Google Sheets. At some stage, in order for Silk to grow, it needs to make itself easy to integrate with external products, and Silk is finding that APIs can help it continue to scale and build its audience in this way.

Salkever gives some advice to other startups facing a similar trajectory:

You have to be very careful in the thinking around which APIs you rely on because you are building a very dependent user base. It is not terribly forgiving if there is a problem. We are very cautious about which APIs we are using.

There is also the cost issue. You have to think about where you are going with scale and what you will have to pay for.

We are building everything iteratively, so it is not like anything will break. You have to be very careful with who you are connecting with. You want to create the most stable environment for your users.

Silk is still available as a free service as it continues to build its data visualization product. The Silk API is also free to use but is considered a beta release.

Be sure to read the next Visualizations article: Qlik Software Creates Developer Edition of Data Visualization Platform