Prospect has uncovered the story behind Tim Berners-Lee's work deep inside British government, and his remarkable success at busting open a closed, data-hugging stateby James Crabtree / January 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
Above: Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web
This story is now line for subscribers to read, while an exclusive interview with Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt is available to read free, here.
Before working as an editor at Prospect, I was briefly a civil servant. The experience taught me that most civil servants knew nothing about data, and the few that did were rarely listened to. Most were masters at prevarication when anyone tried to suggest that they open up vital information about schools, housing, health services, to the public; the crown jewel in Britain’s data crown, Ordnance Survey, was especially jealously guarded. So I was a surprised—shocked, even—to learn just before Christmas that the deal was done. An infrastructure for the mass release of data into the public domain was in place: in a few months they would be giving it away for free. How had this minor policy miracle happened? Three words, I was told: Tim Berners-Lee. It seemed the inventor of the world wide web, and one of Gordon Brown’s boldest and unlikeliest appointments of the last year, had winkled open the treasure chest.
For the last six months he and his friend Nigel Shadbolt have been leading an unlikely, quiet crusade inside Whitehall. This morning both both Berners-Lee and I discussed the implications of what they have been up to on the Today programme.
Some of Britain’s most impressive internet policy experts had long been trying to break down this particular door. Ex-MP Richard Allan. Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson. Internet gurus Tom Steinberg, and Tom Loosemore. Former Number 10 policy advisor William Perrin. All bounced back dazed when they tried shoulder charging the Ordnance Survey’s door, as if tripped up by a canny geographer’s sandal on their run up. So my colleague Tom Chatfield and I decided we that needed to find out exactly how the man who invented the web had managed to reinvent the rules of British data.
The story we uncovered will be on the cover of Prospect magazine’s next issue (out on Thursday 28th January). It is a tale of star power, serendipity, vision, persistence and an almost unprecedented convergence of all levels of government. It is the best sort of policy story: one where the policy works, the good guys win, and public interest is served.
The task of doing the digging fell into two parts.…