Inventor of the World Wide Web (WWW) and founder of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Sir Tim Berners Lee has been doing a tour around Australia and New Zealand during the last 2 weeks speaking about a variety of issues such as innovation, linked data, open datasets, HTML5 and the perils of governments logging internet usage by citizens. I attended two of these events hosted by the CSIRO’s new Digital Productivity and Services Flagship and The City of Sydney/University of Technology respectively, taking notes which have been summarised below.
Sir Tim’s dream when first developing the WWW was
“To create a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished.
There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize.
That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyze it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together”.
As to the question of whether he has mixed emotions about “cashing in” on the Web his response was measured.
“Not really. It was simply that had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. The decision to make the Web an open system was necessary for it to be universal. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it”.
Commenting on this achievement, noted futurist and inventor Mark Pesce said that:
“Hypertext was a mess of competing, incompatible standards. And Project Xanadu was never going to happen. Tim came along, created an open standard, then did the years and years of hard yards needed to bring that standard into ubiquity and maturity.”
Innovation & Open Platforms
Rather than addressing the audience as ladies and gentlemen Sir Tim said he would like to divide them into 3 groups “geeks, connected people and yet to be connected people”. By geeks he meant people who if given a computer can make it do something different to what it does now, connected people who use telecommunications technologies and yet to be connected people who either cannot or chose not to participate.
Instead of computers and mobile devices being seen as white goods and closed appliances Sir Tim said we need to tinker with them and modify the source to solve problems:
“We need more people to code, especially girls, it’s very cool”.
Reflecting on the past he reminisced about his time at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and noted that innovations like his creation of the WWW happen when great bosses let you do things on the side.
Just as Vint Cerf and company, in 1969 had built the Internet for everyone, as a platform that not dictate what it would be used for, similarly 20 years later in 1989 when he created the WWW it was an open platform.
Sir Tim described the process of getting the WWW working as:
“A little like a bob sled … It’s very heavy and you try to push it going, to get momentum behind the project you get everybody you can gather to get their weight behind it. Eventually there is a critical moment you notice the bobsled is going downhill at some momentum and if you don’t get in and steer then all is lost”. This point for the web was in 1993/94.
Evangelising the WWW he explained that it is:
“Great because things connect, when you search the web it’s beneficial that a hypertext link can go anywhere. The most important use of data that you produce is by somebody else for some reason that you cannot imagine. As more data is produced in usable form and connected together, the value of each piece of data goes up”.
“Now the most exciting thing that’s happening at the W3C is HTML5. This isn’t just fifth generation of HTML. A webpage is now not just a document with static links, it’s now something that runs a program.
With HTML5 this becomes more powerful so if you are writing an app for a phone or a laptop you have the alternative to write it as a web app. It will run on any browser or platform which is in general better. Suddenly instead of having 10 to the power of 11 webpages out there we may end up with that many computers talking to each other”.
Sir Tim hopes that the new CSIRO productivity flagship will enable more people to raise the bar and emphasised that it’s
“Important that lots of students are involved and they are not fettered. You give them grants so that they can use however many years of their PHD wondering how to improve things. It’s also interesting to build large chunks of of open software code building on previous projects and collaborating to build bigger projects.”
In 2009 Sir Tim decided that there was lots of data out there but it was often unstructured or available only after you’ve logged into a website. Data is most valuable when it is structured and data sets are linked so their value together is more than if they were used separately.
According to the W3C:
“The Semantic Web is a Web of Data — of dates and titles and part numbers and chemical properties and any other data one might conceive of. The collection of Semantic Web technologies (RDF, OWL, SKOS, SPARQL, etc.) provides an environment where application can query that data, draw inferences using vocabularies, etc.
The Semantic Web isn’t just about putting data on the web. It is about making links, so that a person or machine can explore the web of data. With linked data, when you have some of it, you can find other related, data.
Sir Tim created a 5 star scheme in order to encourage people – especially government data owners to start going along the road to good linked data.
Under the star scheme, you get one (big!) star if the information has been made public at all, even if it is a photo of a scan of a fax of a table – if it has an open licence. You get more stars as you make it progressively more powerful, easier for people to use:
★ Available on the web (whatever format) but with an open licence, to be Open Data
★★ make it available as structured data (e.g., Excel instead of image scan of a table)
★★★ use non-proprietary formats (e.g., CSV instead of Excel)
★★★★ use URIs to denote things, so that people can point at your stuff
★★★★★ link your data to other data to provide context
Privacy & Quantified Self
Sir Tim had just been to the World Economic Forum at Davos where he said there was a lot of concern about cyber-security. He says many people are worried that cyber security will lead to laws that will be too strong, decreasing the rights of human beings which would be disastrous.
While there are some kinds of government data that can’t be released because of privacy considerations there many areas of low hanging fruit in opening up government data like the department of Transport which decides when the buses and trains run.
Sir Tim said that
“It is much more valuable to live in a country where there is open data about these public transport schedules, than if it is locked up in proprietary files. If Google Maps public transport directions doesn’t work in your city you need to go and find out who has locked up the data and tell them how to publish it in the format Google needs for their system”.
“If you’re personally typing a lot of information about yourself into social networking sites and wondering that the site is making a lot of money by selling profiles of you to advertisers. After you’ve spent time investigating one particular thing, all the ads you see for the next week are all about that thing. There’s a question about whether it’s for the overall benefit of the public and whether people should control this perhaps using the Do Not Track mechanism in web browsers”.
“A common privacy concern is that Web 2.0 sites store a lot of your personal data as does your computer and devices. Another myth is that the value of my personal data is mainly beneficial for a large company that wants to track me”.
“I think that if you think about it all that data collected across your computer, phone etc such as your movements tracked by the accelerometer such as whether you’re running, jogging or sitting still. That’s an awful lot of health data that could be collected if my battery could last long enough to track that 24/7”.
“This data isn’t most valuable to drug companies, it’s actually most valuable to me. Nobody else has more interest in my health than me. Nobody else also has the opportunity to take that health/fitness data and merging it with other data like which drugs I’m taking and my DNA. So the personal value of data integration is important”.
Towards the end of his CSIRO speech Sir Tim made it clear that he has:
“A worry that the government is liable to take too much control and to take away people’s rights by blocking or spying on internet use by Australians. Beware of a government that has the ability to control what you see on the web, you might be happy with a government that you like but imagine a government that you don’t like having that power. Net neutrality is really important not just for science and research but for democracy”.
When asked about what he thought about an Australian government proposal for individual data logs for up to 2 years he said that it is:
“Important to fight serious organised crime and for a country to be able to defend itself against cyber attack. Having said that the dangers of snooping on people, if you do record the websites somebody creates or visits then you’re not going to get the criminals. They’re going to take some trouble to go through TOR or use some intermediary like a VPN. If you block VPN that’s not good because everybody in industry needs VPN and whistle-blowers often need VPN’s”.
“The information in logs won’t contain information about serious criminals, only the people who’ve taken out too many library books. Then think what you’ve got, these logs contain data on the websites you’ve gone to so if someone has gone to a cancer health site you’ll be able to know exactly what sort of cancer they’re worried about, you’ll be able to see exactly which forums they’ve gone to”.
“You’ll produce a world where a teenager who really needs to go to an online forum to get some professional advice or wants to find out something about sexuality, growing up and realising that if they click they will be branded for years as having gone to that site, and their house will be branded as having someone who has visited that site”.
“Imagine that somebody ends up not being able to use the web because of the fear of being logged for searching about intimate things like personal health issues, things that they don’t even share with their nearest and dearest”.
“That information is so dangerous you have to think about it like dynamite. If it gets away what you’ve done is prepare a dossier on everyone in the country, which will allow if that dossier is stolen to be used for blackmail purposes”.
“If you have a government agency that deals with that then boy do you have to have another government agency with the same power looking at that first government agency to check what it does”.
“I have seen no country set up those two the watchers, and the watchers of the watchers. So the whole thing seems to me fraught with massive danger and a really really bad idea”.