For over four decades, Autodata has provided professional mechanics with the up-to-date technical information they need to repair and service a vast range of cars and motorcycles. It started with paper-based books, directories and manuals, before moving on to using CDs to distribute its content to users.
But in recent years, Autodata has moved to an online model: its latest online content platform, launched in late 2014, holds information on 29,000 models from over 80 automotive manufacturers worldwide. The types of content available include technical specifications, detailed service schedules, quick search for diagnostic trouble codes and interactive wiring diagrams. As Autodata chief technology officer Neil Brooks explains:
This is the key app we use for talking to garages and mechanics. Before, our content was delivered to them in more traditional formats, but with this online platform, all the information is pulled into one place. This makes it easier for us to create more user-centric views of content, based on mashing up the information to reflect the ways that mechanics work.
So, if a mechanic was performing an annual service on a 2006 Volvo S40, which required them to check the air conditioning, for example, they would have previously been forced to locate and consult the air-con section of Autodata’s paper-based manual on that model. Now, Autodata serves up only the information they need, via the app, in the order that the mechanic needs it, in order to perform each of the tasks involved in a Volvo S40 annual service.
This kind of agility when it comes to content delivery is due, in part, to good API management. Since his 2013 appointment as CTO, Brooks has driven the development of Autodata’s online platform and established a new approach to making content accessible through APIs, as part of Autodata’s wider digital transformation strategy. When he arrived at the company, he says:
The feeling among the company’s leadership team was: ‘We want to do something digital, but we don’t know what. We want to sell data, but we don’t know how'.
This second point - selling data - is important because, in addition to serving up content to its own web platform, Autodata also uses APIs to enable third-party developers to include its content within their own applications and systems, via the Autodata Developer Platform. A full list of the APIs available to third parties can be found here. Says Brooks:
I made a strategic decision from the start to surface all content - content for our own use and for third-party developers - through APIs. It made sense to base our own web application on the same APIs as the ones that developers would use, because it gave us more credibility, in terms of eating our own dog food or drinking our own champagne, whichever you prefer.
At the same time, I saw this would enable us to move quickly on revenue-generating products without having to worry too much about some of the more legacy aspects of how the data is stored in our back-end databases. And it gives us a level of separation that means that, in the future, we can re-factor those databases without worrying too much about how it might affect how customers consume our data.
Brooks chose Mashery as Autodata’s API management tool, which Tibco then bought from previous owner Intel in August 2015. Tibco Mashery, as it’s now called, manages APIs that make accessible around 75% of Autodata’s content. Brooks’ team is hoping to have made available around 90% by March this year:
There are 35 specific APIs, but within that, variants between API calls can be quite vast and, based on the vehicle and type of data needed, gets much bigger still. Each is also language-specific, so depending on where you’re coming from or what you’re asking for, you’ll get content that varies according to market, because service procedures, for example, vary between different markets.
But the aim is to take this approach much, much further, in order to address the intertwined worlds of the connected car and connected garage, he explains:
We want to look at how we can actually mix together content in different ways for particular markets and uses. Perhaps I want to feed information into diagnostic equipment in a connected garage, for example, or an in-car telematics system… we want to supply that information, too, through APIs.
What we’re basically saying to third-party developers is, ‘We want you to come and use our data and we want to remove any barriers that exist to you doing that. Because, at the end of the day, this business [Autodata] isn’t about me having clever HTML developers or a sexy front-end application - it’s about the content we sell. It’s about taking the content we have, making it as accessible as possible for them and as profitable as possible for us.