A Brave New Web (of data)

Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday announced that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is helping the UK government in making its data more easily available online ‘so that government information is accessible and useful for the widest possible group of people’.

Sir Tim said that he looked forward to working with multiple government agencies and local enthusiasts to help early adopters bring their data to the bigger picture.

Sir Tim was has been a vocal critic of the obstacles that national governments put in the way of easy access to data. ‘You have no idea of about the excuses people come up with to keep data out of your hands, even when you as taxpayers have paid for it,’ he told the TED 2009 talk.

The PM’s initiative is seen as an important step in helping to fulfill the vision for the ‘Web of Linked Open Data’, espoused by Sir Tim in his TED talk where he had said: ‘What you find if you deal with people in government departments is that they hug their database, hold it really close, so that they can build a beautiful website to present it. I would like to suggest: sure, make a beautiful website, but first, give us – all of us – the unadulterated data’.

Last week there were reports that the UK government was planning on the development of a central source of data from which all sorts of government data could be accessed, as has been recently introduced by the Obama administration in the US. Sir Tim too had engaged similarly with the US government offering to help them join the ‘rapidly growing Linked Open Data cloud, to which US recovery data will be a welcome addition.’

For quite some time now, Sir Tim has been a steadfast proponent of better access to all forms of data, particularly through his championing of the Semantic Web.

To illustrate applications of the semantic web that lesser mortals might appreciate, Sir Tim waxes lyrical about ‘friend-of-a-friend’ networks, where individuals in online communities provide data in the form of links between themselves and their colleagues and friends. The semantic web could help to visualise such complex networks and organise them to allow a deeper understanding of the community’s structure.

He also sees semantic-web technology playing a role in syndicating useful data, such as weather information, in the same way that RSS feeds are now used to syndicate news items and blog postings on the web.

To come back to the question of making raw data freely available – the recent hullabaloos over a number of incidents where careless civil servants and government consultants have misplaced CD-ROMs, lost memory sticks and left laptops on public transport – the thought of the loss of data containing sensitive information fills most of us with dread.

Equally mortifying is thought of – as one concerned blogger wrote – ‘journalists and the simply malicious being let loose on Government statistics and Wolfram Alpha, and coming up with endless bunk that will have to be refuted over and over again’. But is that a clinching argument for restricting access to the data.

‘Any technology can be used for good or for bad and that’s always been the case,’ says Sir Tim. ‘But in general, more communication is a good thing’. It can, he notes, build bridges between cultures, boost commerce and accelerate scientific progress.

The web can be used by criminals and racists – but it can also be used to counter them, or as a force for good. Totalitarian regimes may be able to filter content on the web and use it to track dissidents, but human ingenuity means that attempts to block the flow of information altogether are doomed to fail.

So bring on the data… both the raw and the cooked. Researchers around the world and the Web are waiting to make sense of it. If applications like Wolfram Aplha is anything to go by, I – for one – am looking forward.

– Jai Mukherjee (11 June 2009)

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