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. First, we had to talk to Tim Berners-Lee himself—no easy task, given we wrote asking for an interview and received a note back from his organisation saying it was totally impossible. But friends in government put in a good word and doors opened. Just after the New Year, Tom Chatfield (a web geek of sorts) found himself Skype-interviewing Berners-Lee, for more than an hour, about his frenetic six months at the heart of British government.
Talking to the inventor of the web is a dizzying experience, especially when you’re actually using his creation to host the conversation. It’s rather like picking up a book and then leaning over to tell Gutenberg what you think about type, or watching The Wire while sitting next to John Logie Baird. Except, of course, that Tim Berners-Lee is still with us, and, as Tom discovered, takes a restless delight in the future of his creation. Isn’t there a temptation just to sit back, Tom asked, and cruise around the world collecting honorary degrees? The idea didn’t even seem to have occurred. For Berners-Lee, the future of the web is just too important, too urgent and, perhaps above all, too interesting to be neglected.
It was easy to see how this man makes things happen: his viewpoint was never less than global, and his ambition every bit as total as his original vision for “phase one” of the world wide web. Connecting 1.5bn people to each other has been, clearly, only the beginning. There was a touching note of pride in his recollections of family holidays spent in England, finding beaches to visit thanks to closely-clutched Ordnance Survey maps, but this had nothing to do with nostalgia: it was about the power of information, and what he believes can be done if the force of public data is properly unleashed.
For Berners-Lee it was the argument that mattered–as he might say, the need to “get raw data now.” But the context was not easy. Here is how our story begins, from the introduction to the essay:
“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 data 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?
Finding out the answer to this was the real work: the details of the meetings with cabinet ministers, the tense Whitehall battles, the crucial presentation to the Cabinet, and so on. We spoke at length to Berners-Lee’s friend and co-appointee to the data initiative, Nigel Shadbolt, and had carefully worded off-the-record chats and “steers” from officials from many different government departments, political figures and well-connected outsiders. And it was here we found the story.
In their exclusive story of how the man who invented the web broke open Britain’s government, only in Prospect on 28th January, James Crabtree and Tom Chatfield reveal:
The inside story on how Tim Berners Lee and Nigel Shadbolt opened up Britain’s secretive, closed data culture
How a single, tragic accident convinced Britain’s top politicians of the wisdom of data-mashing
Why a single Word document sent to “TBL” suddenly made the centre of government stop
How a ministerial trip to see President Obama’s team finally opened the door for Tim Berner-Lee’s vision
How Tim and Nigel both believe their vision for public data could incubate the next “phase 2” of the web, while also redrawing the boundary between citizens and government