Analysis / The Big Interview / The Big Interview: Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web

The Big Interview: Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web

25 years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the the World Wide Web, which has transformed the way we live today. Over the next 25 years, Sir Tim expects another cultural shift to take place through the evolution of open data

The World Wide Web has been hailed as one of the greatest inventions of mankind. Developed 25 years ago by Sir Tim Berners-Lee while he was a software engineer at CERN, it has changed every aspect of the way we communicate in modern-day life, from the way we do business to how we educate ourselves, collaborate, share information and tackle problems.

His vision – to build a system that would enable millions of computers to talk freely to each other around the world – has not only made life more efficient, it has helped empower people all over the world. The sentiment expressed by Sir Tim’s famous tweet during the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games in 2012 – “This is for everyone” – is precisely what the World Wide Web has become: something for everyone that is connecting, enabling and uniting the world.

I meet Sir Tim at the Open Data Institute (ODI) summit, where he tells me how he expects another cultural shift to take place over the next 25 years, through the evolution of open data. Sir Tim co-founded the ODI with Sir Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton, to help develop this change, and the summit represents a key milestone for what the ODI has achieved in so far.

He says: “When you look at open data it is tremendously useful. It is tremendously enabling. Typically, if data is introduced by government, unless it is personal data by individuals, it has been produced with money from the taxpayer which is a service to the people. It is reasonable to think of it being public, for open use.

“There are lots of reasons for making data open; people focus on the transparency, the fact you can see what the government is doing. It is about making life more efficient, particularly for businesses. Businesses run on data.

“It is helping solve lots of issues. It is about understanding the state of the country, understanding the economy and understanding the products of your suppliers, but also the financial climate. This can help people make more effective decisions.

“There is also lot of environmental data, weather data and temperature data. A lot of companies need to plan their work as a function of the weather and the environment.”

Quick-witted and inspiring, Sir Tim certainly comes across as a man for the people. He was drawn to the field of technology by his love of mathematics. Both his parents were mathematicians and were involved in building the first computers. This evolved into electronics later, following a fascination for trains.

Sitting next to me in the Green Room at the summit, he tells me there is still a lot more that is needed to be achieved when it comes to governments and organisations using open data.

“The ODI has been going for two years,” says Sir Tim. “It is all new, which is exciting. But it should not be new. The web has been around for 25 years, computers have been around for longer. Why has it taken so long to get around to doing open data?

“In the UK, we do not have a very good story about geospatial data and maps. That is really important, because there are a huge number of things you need maps for.”

Sir Tim believes all levels of the government, from Westminster to local town councils, should be making their data more open. He tells me how even the generation of data on things such as potholes can provide important information which will be of benefit to society.

“They will go, okay, you have got your pothole data,” he says. “Now we want to see whether our potholes are worse than the next town’s. Then definitions will emerge of what are potholes and what are not.

“Communities will get together and make a pothole standard. Then you will get people looking at UK pothole distribution and realising and being able to predict where the potholes are going to come, based on the weather, or predict how potholes will impact house prices. There will be all types of interesting ways the data gets connected.

“It will make governance easy and people will be able to govern themselves collaboratively. People and governments will work together to improve the country. It will make everything much easier if open data about the state of the country is made available.

“When you release government data, everything runs better. As a government, you work better in your job managing the country, the town or the city in collaboration with the citizens. It is just a whole lot easier, and you will find the citizens are a whole lot happier. The job of keeping data quality gets a whole lot easier.”

Sir Tim believes there will eventually be a shift towards open data becoming the default. The ODI is seeing lots of demand from organisations to be trained in this area – in the last 18 months it has trained more than 700 people.

He says: “If you are producing a spread sheet for the government, it will become automatic to put the spreadsheet on a public server rather than a private server. In 25 years’ time everything will be much more efficient – people will not only have done open data, they will be congratulated for having it up. Then they will want to compare it with everyone else’s data of the same thing.”

Sir Tim concedes it is not likely all data will become open. He says: “You should wonder whether some data should be open or closed. For example, should you reveal to people stock levels that will help them deal with you? Or maybe you would feel your competition would use the data. Some people can argue about it.

“There is some data though, like data about your products, anything you sell, which should definitely be public. If you look at the data which is embedded in web pages [such as], which is run by a bunch of companies including Google, it is form of linked data in your web page.

“It will take your product and put it in a list of products for sale – so when someone is searching for products, instead of giving a list of web pages, the search engine will be aware of its meaning and know what you are searching for.”

As more and more organisations and governments make their data open it will make the way we do things more efficient. Like the World Wide Web, open data will help transform and empower the world and tackle modern challenges such as population growth and housing, extreme weather, disability and transport. As Sir Tim says, this is for everyone.


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