One line of code

How I built an API for the London 2012 Olympics with one line of code.

about 3 years ago - 4 min read

In 2012, I built an app for the London Olympics. I'd seen the official app in the months leading up to the games and decided I could do better, so I set to work. I wasn't looking to profit from it, I just wanted to learn how to build an app.

In one section was news and in another was a global medal table. These had to be kept updated in real time. Back then I wasn't as proficient in cloud services as I am now, so I was looking for a simple solution. There was no official medal list API. I needed a way of obtaining, storing and serving this data for free. I was also worried about hosting costs - afterall, this is one of the biggest world events, what if my app became popular and struggled to deliver content.

I decided that the easiest thing to do was host a csv file. I would keep that updated and it would load into the app on every pull-to-refresh. But how could I keep it updated? And where could I host it? I thought about watching the games religiously and inputting all the data by hand, but decided to just steal a medal table from a wikipedia instead. Thanks Wikipedia moderators!

I loaded up Google Sheets and typed this into a cell:

=IMPORTHTML("https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Summer_Olympics_medal_table", "table", 3)

And out popped the medal table…

+───────+────────────────+───────+─────────+─────────+────────+
| Rank  | NOC            | Gold  | Silver  | Bronze  | Total  |
+───────+────────────────+───────+─────────+─────────+────────+
| 1     | United States  | 47    | 27      | 30      | 104    |
| 2     | China          | 38    | 31      | 22      | 91     |
| 3     | Great Britain  | 29    | 18      | 18      | 65     |
| 4     | Russia         | 19    | 21      | 27      | 67     |
| 5     | South Korea    | 13    | 9       | 8       | 30     |
| 6     | Germany        | 11    | 20      | 13      | 44     |
| 7     | France         | 11    | 11      | 13      | 35     |
| 8     | Australia      | 8     | 15      | 12      | 35     |
| 9     | Italy          | 8     | 9       | 11      | 28     |
| 10    | Hungary        | 8     | 4       | 6       | 18     |
| ...   |                |       |         |         |        |
+───────+────────────────+───────+─────────+─────────+────────+

Bingo!

All I had to do was Share > Publish to web > as .csv and hey presto, here was my API.

And better still, there was an option to Automatically republish when changes are made which would poll the website every 5 minutes and update the CSV accordingly.

I pointed it at a few websites - BBC Sport, The Guardian, Wikipedia etc… So if markup broke on one website, it would default to the next one in line.

I did the same for the news; pointing at Google's own news site for tagged olympic news and then I launched the app with a few weeks to go before the opening ceremony.

I had tickets to the first day of the olympics and as I queued to get in with my friends, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, opened the app and pulled to refresh. It worked like a charm - all the way through the olympics. No hosting fees, no worries.

The app didn't do as well as I'd anticipated, though it gained around 10,000 downloads and was reviewed in The Guardian as "better than the official app". But it gave me the confidence to start building more apps and services.

Building services these days can be incrediby complicated. But I often think about this one line of code that instantly provided an API. It taught me to look for the simplest, smartest route - the fewer moving parts, the fewer things can break. I loved it.

My humble app - Go2012


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