Are you a little lost in all the technical jargon, but still want to give the API a shot? This is a good place to start! This is by no means a complete introduction to APIs, but it might be just enough to help situate a technically inclined person who's a bit outside of their comfort zone. If you'd prefer to just access the cases using a human-centric interface, please check out our search tool.
Fundamentally, an API is no different from a regular website: A program on your computer, such as a web browser or curl, sends a bit of data to a server, and the server processes that data and sends a response. If you know how to read a url, you can interact with web-based services in ways that aren't limited to clicking on the links and buttons on the screen.
Consider the following url, which will perform a google search for the word "CAP."
Let's break it down into its individual parts:
This first part tells your web browser which protocol to use: this isn't very important for our purposes, so we'll ignore it.
The next part is a list of words, separated by periods, between the initial double-slash, and before the subsequent single slash. Many people generically refer to this as the domain, which is only partly true, but the reason why that's not entirely true isn't really important for our purposes; the important consideration here is that it points to a specific server, which is just another computer on the internet.
The next section, which is comprised of everything between the slash after the server name and the question mark, is called the path. It's called a path because, in the earlier days of the web, it was a 'path' through folders/directories to find a specific file on the web server. These days, it's more likely that the path will point to a specific endpoint.
You can think of an endpoint as a distinct part of a program, which could require specific inputs or provide different results. For example, the "login" endpoint on a website might accept a valid username and a password for input, and return a message that you've successfully logged in. A "register" endpoint might accept various bits of identifying information, and return a screen that says your account was successfully registered.
Though there is only one part of this particular path,
search, developers usually organize paths into hierarchical
lists separated by slashes. Hypothetically, if the developers at Google decided that one generalized search endpoint
wasn't sufficiently serving people who wanted to search for books or locations, they could implement more specific
endpoints such as
The final section of the URL is where you'll find the
parameters, and is comprised of
everything after the question mark. Parameters are a way of passing individual, labelled pieces of information to the
endpoint to help it perform its job. In this case, the parameter tells the
/search endpoint what to search for.
Without this parameter, the response wouldn't be particularly useful.
A URL can contain many parameters, separated by ampersands, but in this instance, there is only one parameter: the
rather cryptically named "q," which is short for "query," which has a value of "CAP." Parameter names are arbitrary —
Google's developers could just as easily have set the parameter name to
?query=CAP, but decided that "q" would
sufficiently communicate its purpose.
The Google developers designed their web search endpoint to accept other parameters, too. For example, there is an even
more cryptically named parameter, 'tbs' which will limit the age of the documents returned in the search results. The
?q=CAP&tbs=qdr:y will perform a web search for "CAP" and limit the results to documents less than a year
OK! That about does it for our beginner's introduction to web-based APIs.
You can apply all of these principles to the Caselaw Access Project API. To find out how, check out our API tutorial. Or, if you're feeling confident enough, jump right into out our In-Depth Tutorial and get to work.
Thanks, and good luck!
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