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An API for Genome Apps

23andMe is opening up its application programming interface so that third-party developers can create apps that will piggyback on customers' personal genome data.

The company, which announced the API launch at last week's Quantified Self conference, says that genome apps should be of great interest to "self-tracker” community. Conference attendees "immediately latched onto the potential of the Personal Genome API for the self-tracking movement. Integrating various sets of genetic traits into sleep trackers, for example, was a popular topic."

Mike Polcari, director of engineering at 23andMe, tells Daily Scan sister publication BioInform that the company is taking privacy seriously. Interested developers will have to apply online in order to ensure that they are "real and identifiable "and that they "are being thoughtful about which pieces of the genome they are accessing," Polcari says.

In addition, individual-level data won't be personally identifiable to developers, and 23andMe customers will be able to decide whether they want their data accessible to an app.

Wired UK speculates that there may be a benefit for 23andMe benefactor Google, noting that "with the attitudes toward personal data shifting more and move every day, it's not hard to see a time when the company might start to turn a closer eye to this source of information and how it could make a difference to users' lives. Indeed, with API access, it's freer than ever to explore possibilities in this space and the company shows a clear interest in projects with philanthropic motivations through its arm."

TechCrunch, meantime, says that building apps on social networks like Facebook "is an exciting proposition, but something like this is just mind-bending."

John Wilbanks warns that there's more to 23andMe's motivation than good will and community building, however.

"Publishing an API is smart business move for 23andme, and holds the potential to create a lot of genomics apps on the data they hold," he says. On the other hand, he stresses that publishing an API "is a smart business move. Let me repeat that: it’s a business move. It's not because they're nice."

Developers "must apply for permission to make applications. Developers must tell 23andme, before developing, what their apps will do. And there is nothing that prevents the strategic shrinking of an API, or the subtle or not so subtle pressure to turn off applications that compete with core business functions or revenues of 23andMe," he says.

Citing anti-competitive moves by Twitter and Facebook with regard to third-party app development, he recommends that developers looking to work with 23andMe "code carefully, my friends. And choose your monopolies wisely."