Mathew Lowry

The inventor of the Web is now advising the UK government on public information delivery. Interestingly, this was positioned within “a statement on constitutional reform” – an apt indication of the impact which information delivery, when done properly, can have on governance.

According to the Cabinet Office (11 June):

Sir Tim Berners-Lee … will head a panel of experts advising … how government can best use the internet to make non-personal public data as widely available as possible. He will oversee the work to create a single online point of access for government held public data and develop proposals to extend access to data from the wider public sector … and help drive the use of the internet to improve government consultation processes.

As Simon Dickson says on Puffbox, it’s possible that TB-L’s star power is the most important aspect of the announcement – geeks just can’t convince the Powers That Be of how useful the semantic web could be, but they’ll listen to the guy who invented the Web, even if they don’t grok it themselves much.

The EU, for example, has had a ‘Public Sector Information Directive‘ for years, but we’re not exactly drowning in mashable public data from the member states (or, for that matter, the Commission) that innovative SMEs across the EU are able to combine together to create useful products and services.

And that’s a shame, because semanticising the rivers of data pouring out of the 27 national governments would probably do more to support the Single Market, the European Research Area, EU environmental protection and a hundred other EU policies than any number of Directives and Regulations.

Why? Because semantic data empowers innovators, entrepreneurs, activists & creators, giving them the chance of doing things with information – combining it, comparing it, sharing it, processing and adding value to it – that no committee can ever dream of. TB-L is probably pretty surprised himself at what his invention lead to – who’d have predicted Twitter in the 1990s?

But that’s the point – innovation thrives from the bottom-up, but in an environment which sometimes has to be nurtured top-down.

As Podnosh remarks in its coverage of this story (my emphasis):

[Tim Berners-Lee] understands that the remarkable thing about the internet is we built it. It flourishes because we choose to share stuff with each other using the rules he created back in the late 80’s and early 90’s…

Their post has lots of good stuff in it so I recommend a visit. However, while I agree that “a world wide web of Linked Data is not something he expects big commerce or big government to take sole responsibility for“, it would be a shame if the Commission and the national governments didn’t play a role in priming the pump. The sheer quantity of data that they create is immense, so publishing it in semantic form would short-circuit the chicken and egg problem its take-up currently faces:

why publish our data semantically when there are so few applications to use it?

why build semantic applications when there’s so little data available?

The Commission’s own estimates, after all, value public sector information as worth 27 billion euro – and that’s without the multiplying effect that publishing it semantically would have.

The Commission’s PSI group met last week to discuss the Review of the Directive. No information from this meeting is yet available. Well, not publicly, at least.

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  1. Hi, and thanks for dropping by my blog.

    Opendata won’t just challenge. It offers an enormous amount to the EU.

    I touched on this a bit more on my first post on this topic, which is based on a meeting I had some time ago with TB-L and others on what the SW offers the European Research Area. The answer is, simply: more than any one person can imagine. Same goes for a huge number of other EU policy areas, from environmental science to social policy.

    Moreover, the EU could make an enormous contribution to the uptake of the SW, by mandating/encouraging/supporting the usage of standards in the publication of Public Sector Information across 27+ countries, and by building demonstrators to prove the concept. So there’s a real potential win-win there. But very, very few people in Brussels have any idea of what could be achieved.

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