Understanding The Controversy
Recently there’s been a lot of storage industry chatter about APIs and whether storage owners own their data. It’s a contentious topic of profound importance for the self-storage industry, but it’s hard to wrap your arms around without a technology background. So let’s break it down.
What Is An API?
What exactly is an API you ask? API stands for Application Programming Interface. In its most basic sense, an API is software that allows you to safely push and pull data. For instance, let’s say you want to share information from your facilities’ management software with an online directory. APIs allow you to share this data in a way that protects the data, the sender, and the receiver. You can think of an API as a bridge between two cities such as the bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. If the bridge is the API, then the cities are distinct applications, websites, data sets, or operating systems.
Our digital world could not function without the use of APIs to communicate amongst interdependent software applications. Without APIs, storage facilities would not appear on Google Maps, facility Yelp reviews would not appear on other websites, and Google Maps’ traffic conditions would not appear on our smartphones.
Let’s use online rentals as a trending self-storage example. Rent online features allow consumers to rent a space 24/7. Online rentals conduct a security background check, produce a signed rental agreement, and send gate codes directly to the tenant. Each of these features require APIs between storage directories and websites, property management systems, and other self-storage vendors.
Why Care About APIs?
Why are APIs important in the storage industry? APIs allow the self-storage industry to streamline and automate processes, which increases efficiency and therefore increases profits. APIs also provide storage companies with more data, allowing companies to make decisions based on real feedback from the market, which also increases efficiency and profits. APIs touch nearly every facet of the storage industry: marketing and call centers, facility gate access, legal notices, revenue management, analytics, collections, and storage auctions. Equally important, APIs allow storage companies to improve customer service and provide a more dynamic product. Let’s take a look at a few of these areas of API use in the storage industry.
Marketing And Call Centers
Facility websites require an API with the facility’s property management system (PMS) in order to automatically pull facility, unit, and pricing information from the PMS and populate updated information on the facility website. Similarly, directories such as SpareFoot or StorageFront need access to PMSs in order to accurately advertise each facility’s inventory (their available units) with the correct pricing and unit details. Reservation systems and call centers require this same information. Customer service agents need access to facility, inventory, and tenant information in order to reserve units and answer tenant questions. Since directories are such a common and important use of APIs in the storage industry, let’s take a deeper dive and examine search results on StorageFront.
The above directory facility results depend on APIs. Typically, storage directories have an API with PMS companies. However, each software application uses a different API address; no two are alike. Therefore, OpenTech Alliance created a Global Distribution System (GDS), which translates the different API addresses of each PMS into one standardized API feed. The punch line is that the above facility results are powered by APIs with PMS companies and OpenTech Alliance’s GDS.
Hold on, we haven’t even scratched the surface. Take a look at the screenshot again. The map appears compliments of a Google API. The social plug-ins on the left? You guessed it: APIs with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and AddThis. AddThis is that cute little orange plus sign. Look at all the platforms their company interfaces with (i.e. AddThis has APIs with each one) and StorageFront in turn interfaces with AddThis.
Look at the two facilities listed in the results. The telephone number is pulled from a Twilio API. The directions are provided by a Google API. The social reviews come from the Google and Yelp APIs.
Now we come to the cool part. These facilities have available units listed, unit sizes, and prices. A consumer can reserve or even rent a unit online—all thanks to APIs with the majority of PMS companies, who decided to provided API integration, or OpenTech Alliance’s GDS. Notice that even unit descriptions are listed for US Storage Centers – aperfect example of a more robust API!
Can you think of a reason a facility’s rates might not appear? It’s possible the rates aren’t listed because their PMS company doesn’t have API integration with StorageFront for their facility. It’s important to note that the PMS company might integrate with other directories for this facility, and it’s also possible the facility didn’t want their rates posted. However, if the facility’s unaware their rates aren’t posted this
truly is a tragedy. We just need an API! That was a lengthy detour into directories. Let’s now return to other API uses in the storage industry.
Facility And Gate Access
APIs between a storage facility’s PMS and their gate software allow facilities to deny facility access to delinquent tenants.
Postal, newspaper, and online legal notices can all be automated when third-party software or websites are allowed to access tenant and unit information from a storage company’s PMS.
Storage companies can automate text messages to delinquent tenants if third-party services are allowed to interface with their PMS via APIs.
Facilities utilizing online storage auctions can list delinquent units on websites such as StorageTreasures with the click of a button if their PMS allows StorageTreasures to push and pull data via APIs. Such automation not only saves time and money, it eliminates manual data input errors, thereby reducing liability.
Helping Or Hurting?
With this understanding of the profound impact APIs have on the storage industry, you may be wondering whether all APIs are created equal. APIs vary in terms of complexity and openness. Let’s return to our analogy of APIs functioning like bridges between two cities. You could MacGyver a string between Oakland and San Francisco and travel by raft, clutching the string the whole way. If a narrow single-lane bridge existed, cars could travel in one direction, with the other side waiting for their turn to travel the opposite direction. If there’s enough clearance, pick-up trucks and SUVs could even travel. Expand it out to four or six lanes and extend the clearance and you have a robust and efficient bridge. Clearly you don’t want to travel by string and raft.
A more complex API however, raises concerns of a storage company’s ownership and control of their data. The good news is that even a sophisticated six-lane API bridge can be managed as desired. In essence, there is a gatekeeper deciding precisely what the API bridge does and does not do. The key is understanding who gatekeeps your data and whether they are acting in your best interest.
Are you starting to wonder where your data is going and for what purpose? Perhaps a purpose that harms rather than helps you? These are the questions we hope you are asking! Data is king today. Storage companies should be able to decide what information they want to pull in and what information they want to push out. Storage companies should also control who can access their information. Are you
thinking this sounds overly obvious? Perhaps, but unless we understand the who, what, where, when, whys, and hows of API use in the storage industry, we as storage operators can’t possibly protect or control our data as storage owners and operators.
The first step is educating ourselves as an industry. What APIs do you currently use? Are they working the way you want them to? What APIs could you utilize to better your business? Who else is using your data? Do you want them to? Storelocal is here to help you grapple with these questions; call us! We’ll continue to provide more and more information with the aim of helping you as an owner and the industry in general. If data is king, then information is queen; and you can count on us to provide it.
Leslie Watkins is an attorney turned entrepreneur. She co-founded and operated StorageTreasures.com with her husband, Lance. Her passions are food, yoga, animals, and all things self-storage.