The way Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, describes it, the internet revolution of the last 20 or so years that we all take for granted today was a near-accident born of desperation. But no near-accident is the impact of open data and how the late Steve Jobs played a role in bringing forward the revolution in HTML5.
By the time Berners-Lee got round to creating the world wide web in 1990 – effectively the internet as we know it by fusing hypertext to TCP (transmission control protocol) – the internet was already 20 years old in his eyes. It just wasn’t usable for most folk.
In 1969, the year the US put a man on the moon, the internet existed as Arpanet, a military data network.
As a fellow at CERN on the France/Switzerland border, use of the internet was mainly an academic pursuit slowly filtering out among colleges and research institutes but was barely usable and required effort. "It (the internet) was sneaking in.
“Physicists, like mathematicians, will just write a piece of software to make something work if they can’t find a function button, they just go and write it."
He told the international 2012 Teradata Universe Conference in Dublin today how the creation of the world wide web was a near-run thing.
“My boss approved the purchase of a few NeXT machines (the late Apple CEO) Steve Jobs had produced and just to kick the tires with the new machines I wrote a simple version of HTML and HTTP and produced a memo and a few people noticed."
The world wide web as we know it was born during a Christmas break but the significance of the event was overtaken by tumultuous events like the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the rest is history – Berners-Lee moved to MIT and headed up the World Wide Web Consortium, a revolution that has since shaped our lives.
Today, is impossible to imagine life without the internet; life without Facebook, YouTube, the ability to buy airline tickets from Ryanair, pay motor tax online, or pull up a search or make a Skype call on your smartphone.
Open data heralds the internet’s next exciting phase
Considered one of the pioneering fathers of the internet, Berners-Lee believes we are only at the dawn of an even more exciting era – the era of open data and the semantic web, where almost every feasible physical device or piece of data will be interlinked online.
“The semantic web vision has taken a long time to come to fruition because the web is so exciting in many other ways," says Berners-Lee, who has been driving new metadata labelling formats to make everything linkable.
The future web we are about to see will be one in which data and devices everywhere will be interlinked and metadata is central to this – effectively who owns A or B in the same way individuals own the deeds to their homes but the difference is allowing this data to be usable and open.
He cites the corner boxes you see on Wikipedia, for example, as a case of how databases and datasets can be globally linked.
This brings us on to the next big revolution – open data – and he says governments and businesses are at the forefront of opening up datasets for individuals, citizens and other businesses to make more informed decisions.
On one level, this could be local councils opening up data to allow citizens to find out where the potholes are, on another level it could be businesses sharing environmental or healthcare data that can then be linked across the country or the world.
This vision has been embraced in the US by the Obama administration. In the UK, Berners-Lee is a key figure behind Data.gov.uk, a UK project to open up almost all data required for official purposes for free re-use.
As appealing as the vision is for generating more openness, trust and entrepreneurship, there is a reticence among bureaucrats to share this data.
“What we found in governments we also find in enterprises; wherever you go, people will find a reason not to give you data. There is a natural human desire to control everything.
“Some people deliberately release data as PDFs or PNGs because they have a deliberate policy you can’t use that data – look at it but don’t use it."
Another excuse that tends to be used is the quality of the data isn’t good enough, which Berners-Lee describes as a get-out clause or delaying tactic.
“That’s for the data user in the end to decide. Just decide no data is perfect. Once that disclaimer is out there then there is no reason for blaming someone, but give them kudos for what they do with it."
Berners-Lee argues that keeping data secure is more expensive than making it public and officials need to realise what can happen if data is freely available online.
"Open data can change the way government works, for example. Instead of traipsing around department to department looking for information, just access it online. The goal is to have the data available in a way that is more powerful, linkable and usable."
‘With HTML5 every web page is becoming a computing platform’
Berners-Lee says the move to linkable datasets is a fundamental foundation stone on the road to the semantic web – the internet of things.
He also described Jobs’ decision not to put Flash on the iPhone as a key moment that contrary to his reputation as pushing closed systems spearheaded the explosion in HTML and even more open standards.
He said we are now in a world where it is possible to access and view data on a variety of platforms – smartphone screens, 3D TVs and more.
“Think about the processing power of the web behind all these screens – people will soon be able to do the sort of thing that will make Minority Report look like child’s play.
“With HTML5, every web page is becoming a computing platform."