Tuesday, March 19, 2013

BioNames update - API documentation

One of the fun things about developing web sites is learning new tricks, tools, and techniques. Typically I hack away on my MacBook, and when something seems vaguely usable I stick it on a web server. For BioNames things need to be a little more formalised, especially as I'm collaborating with another developer (Ryan Schenk). Ryan is focussing on the front end, I'm working on the data (harvesting, cleaning, storing).

In most projects I've worked on the code to talk to the database and the code to display results have been the same, it was ugly but it got things. For this project these two aspects have to be much more cleaning separated so that Ryan and I can work independently. One way to do this is to have a well-defined API that Ryan can develop against. This means I can hide the sometimes messy details of how to communicate with the data, and Ryan doesn't need to worry about how to get access to the data.

Nice idea, but to be workable it requires that the API is documented (if it's just me then the documentation is in my head). Documentation is a pain, and it is easy for it to get out of sync with the code such that what the docs say an API does and what it actually does are two separate things (sound familiar?). What would be great is a tool that enables you to write the API documentation, and make that "live" so that the API output can be tested against. In other words, a tool like apiary.io.

Apiary.io is free, very slick, and comes with GitHUb integration. I've started to document the BioNames API at http://docs.bionames.apiary.io/. These documents are "live" in that you can try out the API and get live results from the BioNames database.

I'm sure this is all old news to real software developers (as opposed to people like me who know just enough to get themselves into trouble), but it's quite liberating to start with the API first before worrying about what the web site will look like.