Airtable, APIs, and thinking through a problem

“What is an API?” “It’s an application programming interface.” “…. oh, okay, … thank you…”

Sometimes the answer to a question doesn’t supply an actual answer. APIs are a good example- the name is an acronym, and the acronym uses specific terms that make sense in an industry, but might not translate to a digestible concept for the person posing the question.

“What is an API?” I had heard the term for a while, but wanted to understand more. At the same time, I was getting ready to go to Abstractions, a conference in Pittsburgh, PA.

Abstractions looked amazing! I was thrilled with the talk descriptions, the code of conduct, the transparent privacy policy, generous scholarship program, original art specific to the event, and more. Couldn’t wait for it to start! As I started looking at the schedule, I noticed something- the schedule didn’t render well on a browser. Talks were all in distinct blocks, and the blocks sometimes didn’t all fit on one row, meaning that you couldn’t see everything happening at one time on one row. Talks were also broken up by location first, not time first, so again, you couldn’t see what was happening at the same time.

Other people pointed this out as well on the conference Slack channel. The conference organizers, embedded in schedule-details for the past several months, didn’t see the difficulty people were experiencing, and in the heady, final days before an event, most likely had a few other things to do.

I wanted a conference schedule that I could sort and filter, and I wanted to be able to add keywords to talks so I could see what was on the docket for open source, art, various languages, and more.

Okay. So. 1. Excited about a conference 2. Wanted to plan my time well 3. Schedule wasn’t helping as well as it could

What to do? I had the information- but I needed it to listen to my needs. This is what an API is. In many cases it’s a tool, some form of software, but at its core an API is a series of decisions that connects information to action in a way that’s beneficial and transformative.

I can’t say enough good things about the conference organizers. They were completely fantastic- forward thinking, responsive to attendees, endlessly on-point with a thousand event-planning details, and they built something incredible in Pittsburgh. One awesome thing they did was provide the conference schedule information as a pure JSON file in addition to their formatted version of the schedule.

What is a JSON file? Another term I had heard, and even used in conversation, maybe the same way someone would talk about a vegetable even though they’ve never cooked with it. “Ah, the celeriac root! Yes, what a great…. root.”

Okay. So now we’re at: 1. Excited about a conference 2. Wanted to plan my time well 3. Schedule wasn’t helping as well as it could 4. Had a JSON file

From there my Google path was “What is JSON” ➡️“JSON visualization” (apparently not a thing/hard) ➡️“data visualization for schedules” (also apparently not a thing) ➡️lots of variations on that phrase, which mostly netted me schedules for data viz conference (which were terrible) ➡️listening to the most recent CodeNewbies podcast, which had a shoutout for Airtable ➡️Airtable ➡️“JSON and Airtable” ➡️“how to convert JSON to CSV”➡️ download CSV ➡️upload to Airtable ➡️tweak, add keyword content and “I’m new to coding” suggested talks track as a tag,➡️review ➡️share on conference Slack.

Here it is!

Here’s what you can do with it: sort by any column, search, filter, download a CSV, make your own copy and add other columns/fields (like a priority column, for example), and print. Links are active; you can make a Twitter list of speakers, check out their websites. Sort by suggested audience level, filter to only see organizer Justin’s recommendations for an “I’m new to coding” track, sort/filter by keywords.

Keywords was the feature I most wanted- I pulled them from the talk descriptions. You can see everything JavaScript, any other specific language, etc. In some ways, every talk could be tagged as “Best Practices” or “Career Development.” Same for terms like “software,” “coding,” or “tech.” With that in mind, I tried to tag for what stood out.

I shared it, people liked it and were appreciative, and the conference organizers ended up using it to plan speaker-emcee assignments. Things to figure out to do for next time- 1. Make it sync live with the JSON file the conference organizers hosted online (hmmm sounds like an API!), 2. Fix special characters.

So, API, JSON file, celeriac root.

API stands for Application Programming Interface, and it’s a series of decisions that connects information to action in a way that’s beneficial and transformative. JSON stands for JavaScript Object Notation. It’s a lightweight file that allows you to structure data in a way that can be read by web applications and/or converted to CSV for further data-wrangling. And celeriac root is a variety of celery that grows wild in the Mediterranean Basin and Northern Europe, that tastes amazing roasted, in soups, and in the French salad celerie remoulade.

And Airtable is great.

And more conferences should share their schedule information as JSON files.

Thanks Abstractions team! You put on a wonderful event, I had an amazing time and learned a lot, and THERE WERE DOGS.