Kiva and the Case For Nonprofit Open APIs

{ Posted on Feb 10 2009 by Bill Zimmerman }
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Categories : From the home office

Recently, Kiva announced the official launch of the Kiva API and a new developer website, This is a smart move for them, as freely opening up their micro-lending database both increases data interoperability with their partners and fosters the creation of useful and compelling third party add-ons. This extends the reach of their organization and takes their content in new, possibly unexpected, directions.

In fact, just within the last week three early implementations have already surfaced:

  1. Kiva WordPress Plugin – by Connor Boyack and David Miller. Released on February 4th, the same day the API debuted, this plugin is a simple and effective use of the loans API. Watch for this popping up around the blogosphere in coming weeks.
  2. KivaWorld – I’m a sucker for applications that make use of mapping, so this quick n’ dirty mashup gets a nod. Currently, it simply plots open loans as data points on a Google map. There are dozens of potential ways to extend this, including enhancing it with images, mapping relationships with lenders, partner organizations, historical data with loan return rates (perhaps by country/region) and so on.
  3. How We Know Us – Erich has done a fascinating data visualization of the Kiva loan network which appears to explore the linkages between lenders and borrowers. Like the previous two, this is an early effort but it already shows a lot of promise. It doesn’t require too much imagination to see something like this evolve into an interactive Flash-based tool for exploring interconnected data, alá Digg Labs.

These are only three early and admittedly rough examples, but they underscore the fact that open APIs like Kiva’s are here to stay. In fact, I’d say they represent the future. In the past, monolithic APIs were the exclusive domain of large, often proprietary software companies. Today, the standards and technology have both matured in such a way as to provide the potential for real richness in data integration, both within organizations, between organizations, and with bigger entities such as Google.

Using these tools, an engineer today can bring to market a lightweight, smart mobile app that leverages cloud computing and Kiva’s (or any other organization’s) data by mincing together API calls to create something entirely new and on a comparatively short dev cycle. This is assuming, of course, that the APIs are well-documented, well-supported, and truly open.

It’s natural that some organizations would resist the move toward opening up their data for public consumption, as it were. For one, there are (valid) security concerns. This always seems to be the first issue that arises in these discussions. However, speaking as a programmer, openness and security are not mutually exclusive. In fact, exposing and documenting an open API keeps a dev team on its toes and leads to more robust code in the end, in my experience. Ask any hacker to prove me wrong.

Another (less valid) concern has to do with losing control of how an organization’s data gets manipulated “out there” in the world. To this I’d simply point out that not long ago RSS feeds once presented the same concerns to website owners. A good number of content producers were slow to adopt this standard, fearing that syndication (and thus control of presentation, including advertising) would sound their death knell. They were wrong, of course, and today it’s unthinkable not to syndicate your content with RSS.

Open APIs often make good business sense in the case of for-profit, proprietary software vendors as well. Rather than concentrating on client implementations, they can instead focus on their core technologies and allow others to build entire businesses off of serving different vertical markets. For-profits with open APIs like Kintera, Salesforce and Convivo spring to mind.

Other examples of successful open APIs used in the nonprofit world? Comments are welcome.

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I'm an engineer, ex-Microsoftie, founding board member of AfriLabs, co-founder of ActivSpaces in Cameroon and VC4Africa. Drawn to innovation, creativity & all things tech. More at


  1. […] the global microlending database. Not long after the API’s release, blog posts from Bill Zimmerman and the Kiva team report that several developers are already working on Kiva […]

  2. […] to the global microlending database. Not long after the API’s release, blog posts from Bill Zimmerman and the Kiva team report that several developers are already working on Kiva […]

  3. Techmasai says:

    this is an interesting blog, keep up the good work, and i also wrote about kiva at