The Aviation API Economy


 Alex Brooker recounts lessons from bringing operational SWIM to a wider market


There is a lot of talk in the technology sector around the API Economy, and for good reason. In 2012 obtained half its revenue from the sale of APIs. Amazon started by just selling books, but in 2006 Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s visionary founder, mandated that its internal IT platform should be exposed as a powerful set of APIs to create Amazon Web Services (AWS). In 2016 AWS provided less than 10% of Amazon’s overall revenue, but delivered more than USD3bn operating income, over 75% of Amazon’s total.

But, what does this mean for aviation? What is the role of SWIM alongside other ubiquitous web standards and ways of working? What is the Aviation API Economy? When a risk averse, safety critical industry meets internet speed ideas – what are the challenges and opportunities? We look at the opportunity created by the Aviation API Economy and some lessons learned through deploying real world APIs that we shared in a seminar at the World ATM Congress, 2017.

The Aviation API Economy

APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), are functions that enable applications to access the features or data of other operating systems or applications. APIs are the connectors that release the power of operational data across previously disconnected systems.

The Aviation API Economy describes the context in which aviation stakeholders unlock new operational value by exposing their business assets or services through (web) APIs to third parties. Stakeholders include ANSPs, airlines and airports through to weather sensor and drone manufacturers, all of which have a wealth of assets including raw data, geospatial data, and data captured by sensors.

Aviation API Economy value chain

The Aviation API Economy Value Chain

The (web) APIs include the SWIM Yellow Profile as well as other well supported open standards for data exchange.

The power of the Aviation API Economy extends beyond the linkages that already exist in the industry to enable new insight and better decisions. There is opportunity to create new uses of existing data and new ideas for new products, value added services, analytics and apps.

The Importance of Developers

A developer Javascript native: London, Silicon Valley, Bangalore, Bogota

A developer Javascript native: London, Silicon Valley, Bangalore, Bogota…

However, realising the opportunity created by the Aviation API Economy is not just a technical challenge, it’s also a cultural challenge.

Business assets can be connected, managed and exposed via open standard Web APIs through a secure platform (such as the Laminar Data Platform) with managed secure access and monetisation. However, creating real value requires a community of developers – from an in-house team, an external team, a startup, an academic team or enterprising individuals (citizen integrators) within a large organisation – to engage with the assets and build creative solutions.

Ultimately, End Users gain problem-solving capability and decision support in some form. An important point to note here is that the owner of the original business asset doesn’t necessarily know the problem that is being solved. Provided the solution falls within the permitted safe use of the data itself, this is where additional, and unexpected, value is created by the third party.

New Markets & New Ideas

When Snowflake Software launched the Laminar Data Platform in 2016 we exposed SWIM standard APIs and data to a new community of developers. This means XML, AIXM 5.1, IWXXM 1.0 and FIXM 3.0.1 all accessed via a RESTful interface. This was new. Developers had access to surveillance, weather and aeronautical data that had been cleaned, linked together, fused and fully geo-expanded and cross referenced. This was a big step forward for the Aviation API Economy, however feedback from developers was mixed.

Since 2006, test beds with the Open Geospatial Consortium, competitions and activities via SESAR, the FAA and EUROCONTROL had been self-selecting – everyone knew that XML, WFS and other SWIM standards were “the answer”, we just needed to work out how to operate in a SWIM environment.

However, the reaction from the community of web native developers from other industries was not the same. These developers are fluent in Javascript, happy to pick up new frameworks, but are typically loathe to use XML style interfaces, begrudging the development effort required to utilise them.

Common questions received by the Support Team were: SOAP? Is that still used? XML? You’re kidding right? SWIM – what’s that? Where’s the Javascript SDK?

The expectation level, set by using other web APIs such as, Amaxon Web Services, Twitter and Facebook was that data payloads are in JSON or GeoJSON and all APIs are REST, never SOAP.

Both the challenge and the opportunity is that the adjacent industries haven’t been involved in the multi-year test beds, extensive R&D projects and the academic research, they don’t have the baggage (good and bad).

The World ATM Congress theme for 2017 focused on “creating the right culture”, being open to new ideas, and possibly a fresh approach. Allowing change to happen, taking the time to incorporate new approaches while maintaining a strong safety culture is crucial in an ever more complex environment where you don’t know all the use cases, and you don’t know all the combinations of inputs and outputs.

As an industry, are we brave enough to employ new technologies and approaches that yield significant benefits and to create the right culture to realise the value that can be achieved.