Opening up public sector data is an old geek hobbyhorse. But could the man who invented the web reinvent British government?by Tom Chatfield / January 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
It all began with a lunch. Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the world wide web, was invited to Chequers in spring 2009. A government taskforce had just published a report aimed at making Britain a digital world leader and technological reform was in the air. Even so, Berners-Lee was surprised at what came next. “The prime minister asked me what Britain should do in order to make the best use of the internet,” he told Prospect in early January. “I said, you should put all your government data onto the web. And he said, let’s do it.” A month later, Berners-Lee flew in from his base at MIT in Boston for a meeting, this time a cup of tea with Brown in the garden at No 10. He brought with him his friend and colleague Nigel Shadbolt, a professor of artificial intelligence at Southampton University, who works on next generation web technology and has piloted his work on public data. Sitting in wicker chairs, they hatched a plan for a new government team, led by Berners-Lee, to unlock Britain’s public data.
On 21st January this year, less than 12 months later, the government launched a website to do just that (you may have seen the television adverts). Modelled on a similar effort by President Obama, data.gov.uk brings together over 2,500 public data sets, ranging from abandoned vehicles and A&E stats to child tax credits and carbon indicators. And Brown has promised, in a few months’ time, to open up the jewel in Britain’s data crown: the maps made by Ordnance Survey.
“It can be tricky to explain why Tim’s work matters so much,” says dotcom entrepreneur turned government adviser Martha Lane Fox. “But the data he has been able to release can reorder the balance of power between the citizen and the state.” Such claims are often made for “e-government,” whose hype is traditionally exceeded only by the price tags attached to the (often disastrous) IT projects undertaken in its name. But Berners-Lee’s work has the potential to be different, relying as it does on an unprecedented combination of technology experts, amateurs and businesses like Dr Foster or Experian to take the new information and present it usefully. This helps people make better decisions, underpins information-age businesses, and—because it to some degree redraws the boundary between people and government—may also change the terms of politics. Yet perhaps the most remarkable fact is that it happened at all. Others have tried to unlock Britain’s data, only to run into walls of official obstinacy, vested interest and political indifference. So how did Berners-Lee do it?