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A Year of Open Government Data: Transparency, but also Innovation

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities/2011/01/opengov-data.php

Towards the end of 2010, Wikileaks generates many headlines as it publishes information on the web, causing controversy and leading to talk about politicians hiding information from the public. Reporters and commentators express shock or admiration when telling the story of a rogue organisation making governmental information public. What has not been as mainstream is that for the past year or more, governments around the world have been doing something very similar themselves: publishing information online.

Big names like President Obama, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the headliners at big events like the International Open Government Data Conference favour publishing public data for transparency and benefits to society. This all finally began to take off in 2010. Governments from around the world have been developing their public information strategies, with the launches of data.gov and data.gov.uk and data.govt.nz.

This is all taking place at a time of economic restraint. Dr Martin Read from the UK Cabinet Office’s Efficiency Reform Board explained in a recent interview: “If you are going to improve the efficiency of something, making that change involves risk and innovation … If they get it wrong, they’re hauled up in front of a committee for interrogation.” (moderngov, November 2010) It may seem tricky to justify the expense of big projects like data.gov.uk, and there certainly seems to be a huge amount of pressure.

Nevertheless, governments are proving themselves committed to prioritising data publishing. Towards the end of last year, the UK Prime Minister announced that every item of governmental spending over £25,000 will be published online, and updated monthly. He emphasised the importance of this publication in terms of transparency, inviting the public to scrutinise the data. Interestingly, he also said: “This scrutiny will act as a powerful straightjacket on spending, saving us a lot of money.” So, not only is data publishing seen as a benefit to democracy, but also as a useful way to “flag up waste”.

While that press conference was taking place, developers and civil servants were gathered together elsewhere at the Open Government Data Camp (disclosure, Talis was a sponsor). At the event, much was made of the modelling and tools which have been developed with open data in mind: particularly the Linked Data API, which allows developers from just about any web background to work with data.gov.uk’s data very quickly. Visualisations demonstrated what can be done with well-structured data.

One of the things this high-level data publishing has done is raise the standard for what can be published and developed. Last year, we built a proof-of-concept app for the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to illustrate the potential of applications of this data. A few minutes spent on DEFRA’s UK Climate Projections site shows what can happen when raw data is matched with a plan, and is designed with a citizen in mind. Anyone can check the primary source for their government’s climate policy, and it doesn’t take a climatologist to understand it. A little further development allows fully-fledged applications to be built that are instantly useful: one available on the front page of data.gov.uk lets me download an app that helps me plan my cycle route!

Open government data is probably good for transparency. But it’s also got a plenty of potential to seed ideas that add value to this information. Innovators know that there are more people with better ideas outside our organisations than could possibly be in them, so sharing means that they can be developed into products and services that are mutually beneficial to everyone. The web industry routinely works with open-source software that’s been at least partly built by others, and this open-source mentality might just be an incredibly useful piece in the public-sector machinery. Open business models work very well with ideas.

2011 promises to be the year when all this data gets put to use. I was recently invited to a press conference at which the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed the UK’s commitment to published data as a priority and even a recognised civil liberty. The story will shift to more local applications of big public data tools. January will see the publication of local authority’s spending data, and public bodies will be looking to add value to this data, bringing the headlines of open data to life in the places we live.

With a bit of thought into how data is published in the first place, and a plan for encouraging people with good ideas to work with this information, this investment in data publishing could be more than just a tick-box exercise for a political transparency agenda. I hope that this year, it won’t be Wikileaks-level events that get people talking about open data publishing. We should notice it improving services we use, and see whole new applications for the bits and pieces of information that make up our public lives.

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From Nodblog

Information as a Civil Liberty

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities

“Free citizens must be able to hold big institutions and powerful individuals to account.”

I attended a speech at the Institute for Government by UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at which he outlined the government’s stance on civil liberties. This topic is one I am particularly passionate about as a citizen of two democracies, and as a lover of history and human communication, but what was there to interest a software evangelist?

Mr Clegg’s speech is available as a transcript from his party’s site, so you can have a look at the same words I heard. If you read through a lot of the political positioning (references to “Labour”, for non-UK readers, refer to the majority party of the previous government), you get to the bit that interests me as a Talisian as well as a human.

The final point talks about citizens having the right to public information, and the right to speak out about what government (and, notably, publicly-subsidised industry) is doing. The freedom of information and freedom of speech are under the same heading. As Clegg put it:

“It is a modern right to information combined with traditional freedom of expression.”

Examples are given of current transparency measures, including the publishing of particular datasets that are already being used in innovative ways and to hold the government accountable. It’s clear from the speech that transparency is a priority, and that publishing data is seen as fundamental to this.

The theme of balancing security and freedom is repeated throughout the talk, alluding to the fact that some information in any government is clearly going to be kept secret. But the emphasis is on publishing wherever possible, and it was interesting that this felt like the most specific theme of an otherwise very high-level speech. This is an area of public policy that has been changing through the launch of data.gov.uk and the continued efforts of two successive governments (and, interestingly, all three major UK parties) to put public data online. The idea that these datasets will be used, reused, mashed up and seed innovation is at the forefront of these talks. This isn’t just data that can be seen, it’s data that can be used.

So, this government seems committed to continuing the trend for transparency through public information, and for their data to be made available online and in useful ways. The emphasis in this speech, however, adds a new dimension to the commitment, at least the way I understand it. It’s not just that data is a right of any free citizen—the Prime Minister said as much before he was PM—but that this right goes hand-in-hand with the citizen’s right to free speech.

Government publishing its data online, free to reuse and feed applications that make it easier to interact with the information has been a huge step. Alongside this is the area of libel reform, which is a topic too big to get into here but involves the scrutiny of scientific and journalistic investigation without the fear of prosecution. (Guardian journalist Simon Singh discusses libel reform here.)

Although Mr Clegg’s talk is mostly general, discussing big ideas and leaving out specifics, I think the principles discussed were hugely important, and it is good to see a further commitment to public data. As a Talisian, it’s great because we work a lot with this kind of data, and it means we get to do more interesting things with it. As a citizen, it’s important that we can see more of what’s going on within government and that it is being considered fundamental enough to mention alongside freedom of speech and libel reform encourages me.

What I’d like to see this year is the specifics, now. What specific things will make publishing public data easier and more thorough?

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From Nodblog

Extending the Semantic Web (from Crete, with love)

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities

This is my first year attending the ESWC (formerly “European Semantic Web Conference” now the “Extended Semantic Web Conference,” cleverly, the acronym still works) near Heraklion on Crete. It’s only a couple days in, but I thought it’d be a good time to report back to the Nodalities readers. ESWC is a gathering of some of the world’s most influential Semantic Web thinkers, and for me It’s been a few days of meeting people in the flesh with whom I’ve been in touch online for years. As one bloke put it: “What’s kept you away?”

Well, I’m extremely glad I’ve not been kept away this year, and have been excited to see what’s been built recently. ESWC is a very academic conference; indeed I’m quietly auditing the PhD Symposium as I type this. There are papers, PhD symposia, demos and expositions on topics covering anything from ontology development to MapReduce processing of RDF triples. It seems a very fertile seedbed, with many of these ideas having the potential of growing into projects, startups, papers and possibly industries.

I’ve made a subtle and largely subconscious transition by blogging mostly about projects that are up and running. This has been important because the Semantic Web world is no longer one of “someday,” but a world of current and continuous activity. So, I’ve talked about visualisations of data, products running on Linked Data, data.gov.uk et.al.; and I’ve held back on discussing purely possible. It’s been exciting and uplifting to see the conceptual evolve to the proven and working. But this is a reflection of progress—of moving from hypothesis to implementation. It doesn’t mean the concepts have stopped flowing. It’d be a very short story in the history of human communication if the Semantic Web has used up all of its possibilities in ten years!

ESWC is a little microcosm of the wider research going on in Linked Data and related fields. It seems to me that Big Ideas need the traditional frameworks of academic investigation. Questions need to be asked and answered and debated and tried and broken and rebuilt. Much of this science will not become technology, and this is wholly acceptable because it gives the Big Ideas a lot of scope to be refined.

ESWC is just such a place. PhD students and researchers fill the schedule with proposals and reports, and many possibilities are being constantly debated around coffee, beer, and the beach. It’s been a thoroughly fascinating few days, and I’m very much looking forward to more over the next few.

As a quick note, Talis sponsored the Scripting for the Semantic Web challenge for this, its final year. Alexandre Passant and Pablo Mendes won the prize with SPARQLpush.

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From Nodblog

Facebook and the Open Graph: good for Linked Data?

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities

|This post will feature in Nodalities Magazine issue 10.


In April, I was watching the twitterverse explode during the Facebook’s f8 conference, as a steady stream of links and gasps and applause and intentions to delete profiles poured out. My initial reaction to quickly-scanned third-hand reports was essentially: “Oh no.” The message I was getting was that personal information would be be made more public, and that more places would start sporting the little fb: “like” box you see on sites using Facebook Connect. I was concerned because there have been many conflicting messages around facebook and privacy, and this movement to include a wider presence online would essentially pull more people into a huge walled garden.

Watch the f8 video sessions, though, and some interesting things begin to emerge. The main announcement at f8 is an update to Facebook’s API. Indeed, it wasn’t so much an update as a rewrite, moving from an older and complicated SOAP architecture with Facebook Connect to a more RESTful approach, giving services a simpler and more straightforward way to interact with content within Facebook using http. OK, so this isn’t particularly ground-breaking, nor is it very exciting in itself. What is far more interesting, is that Facebook’s engineers are using this word graph to describe their ecosystem with the launch of the Open Graph API.

Firstly, their new Open Graph API is built to enable social plugins which let users on other sites pull content into facebook. So, little “like” boxes will let someone authenticated on facebook but viewing, for example, a movie site click to identify a film they, well… like. This information is recorded on their Facebook profile. But the interesting thing here is that the social plugin is identifying items and objects within pages, and the engineers who introduced the plugins are talking about linking to these individual things. They identify the fact that when someone indicates that they like a movie, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re not “liking” the page which contains the review, but the film itself. These social plugins tell Facebook that a person is expressing some kind of relationship with objects from the wider web. They talk about these people (Facebook users), and the things they’re interacting with (content, objects… things), as existing like points in a graph. There are people are objects, and there are relationships between these nodes. In essence, they’re talking about linking data.

To make this possible, they’ve written the Open Graph Protocol, based on RDFa. Site owners can begin marking-up their content, flagging their pages as Open Graph objects, that Facebookers can start to like. The Protocol contains a vocabulary of object types, and addresses physical location and contact information. So, I can now type in a few lines of metadata in my header, and start declaring the objects in my content. It’s all starting to sound very Linked Data, isn’t it? The Tetherless World blog even has a post showing a mapping between the Open Graph Protocol and RDF, exposing metadata to the wider Linked Open Data cloud. The long and short if this is that anyone who wants people to be able to join their content with the ecosystem of facebook users can do so using a very simple semantic markup process.

So, Facebook’s nearly half-a-billion users will soon start to make use of semantic links, and millions of sites will begin to mark-up their content using Linked Data. Indeed, they had a reported 50,000 sites implement social plugins within the first week! This is properly exciting, because it will dump billions of triples out there on the web, and give more developers a boost in dealing with machine-readable information. It hasn’t, however, completely negated my initial feeling about Facebook and the sprinkling of the web with thousands and thousands of likes.

But…

Many people have renewed their concerns of Facebook’s stance on privacy. Some of the Open Graph API-accessible fields are now defaulted to be public until a user opts-out. Marshall Kirkpatrick talks about the vulnerability of this centralisation. Despite the more “open” direction in which the Open Graph points, it’s very clear that all this data—users’ own graphs of likes and relationships—will be a valuable asset, and facebook holds the keys to this personal data. They’ve already begun partnership deals with Microsoft, Yelp and Pandora; so users’ data will start to flow more freely between Facebook-selected organisations.

Liz Gannes over on gigaom points out that facebook is making itself a single point of failure for the web, and illustrates in another post that a facebook outage on 23rd April also took down partner-site plugins. Robert Scoble, while admiring their ambition also points out that the move requires a lot of trust in Facebook. We need to trust facebook with our own personal information, and trust it to look after the information we’re feeding it about our interests, relationships and tastes. It also raises questions about security: the stakes are higher if an account is hacked, or (as happened to the Scobleizer himself) disabled.

My Thoughts:

So, the main impetus for using the Open Graph Protocol is to tie in with the Facebook ecosystem. This is not a Linked Data evangelism project, or the combined efforts of thousands of Semantic Web developers, but the logical move of a huge company to better manage their data. They’ll be creating billions of nodes on a huge, social graph; and for developers the initial purpose will be to join a group, and cash in on a quick win (if you happen to have use for social networking in your app/service/site.) We’ll see that little “like” button appear all over the place, even on sites which seem a bit odd (Share your next auto check-up on Facebook!) as the bandwagon sets off.

This means we’ll start seeing a lot of RDFa-like semantic metadata on pages all over the web, and this increase will be almost exclusively using JUST the Open Graph. But it will mean more folks will be asking for RDFa, and more developers will begin learning it as a strings to their bows. I wonder how long it’ll take before they start asking what else they can do with all this graph-data? Teaching people the value of machine-readable data (through a popular, specific application like Facebook) has the benefit of increasing developer knowledge and inquisitiveness.

This could be catalytic: allowing a rapid change in the direction of the Semantic Web. From a Linked Data perspective, though, I think a lot of this RDFa will be “wasted” as it’s implemented only for the purpose of joining in with the FB sphere, and is under-utilised. But, I think the interesting stuff will emerge as more innovators quickly find the limitations of Facebook’s controlled vocabulary and data-hoarding ambition and begin to see the potential the bigger Graph brings to their repertoires. What happens when thousands of developers are taught something that’s by definition boundless?

So, we’re left with a question of what we’ll build, and what the Linked Data community does in reaction. For my part, I think the most important message to raise is to mix your data freely. When people begin to see the existing ecosystem of Linked Data, and that it’s not just Facebook’s own-branded metadata, we’ll start to see innovative mashing, and thousands of new services. What will you build?

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From Nodblog

Open… and Mobile?

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities

I know what you’re thinking: “He’s going to say Data!”

Well, I might do at some point, but I was going to say “Days”. Last month, Talis flung open its doors to 30 or so folk who were interested in SPARQL, the Semantic Web and Linked … er, Data. The idea was to host an informal event for folks learn about much of what we’ve been talking about for the past few years. We planned some talks on what it means to join up your data, what this Platform is about, and a detailed introduction to SPARQL. With the launch of data.gov.uk and many of the stories covered over in the Magazine, it seemed possible that people were starting to get interested in this whole Linked Data scene.

So, we sent out some invites and tweeted a bit, and soon had to cap the registration numbers. We filled up spaces in the January day not long after New Year, and the February day not long after the January one. March is quickly filling up too (hint). I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting this many people to express an interest so soon. Not only did people sign up, but travelled to Birmingham through adverse weather to come and take part at both ‘Days—and we’ve had a lot of fun.

One thing that seemed to be a good idea was to ask for feedback before the event. It sounds wrong, but the point of an Open Day is to cover things that YOU’re interested in learning or exploring. So, when people registered, they were asked for their expectations and what they’d like to take away with them from such an event—aside from a T-shirt and SPARQL mug, obviously. It made it much easier to work out what we should cover, and I hope it meant that we were able to talk about the things most relevant to the people who came along.

I’d like to do it again, but slightly differently. Instead of hosting an Open Day here at Talis HQ, what if we came to you? Would you be interested in attending a Talis Platform Roadshow? What would you want us to cover? More importantly, where would you like us to go?

Comments below, or email me or tweet me.

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From Nodblog

Postcode Paper: What you can do with the right data.

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities

Last week, I met up with some folks who are building some amazing things with public data. After seeing their Postcode Paper project, I was left with the lasting impression that given the raw materials, there is very little hindrance to what can be built.

In the Postcode Paper, Tom Taylor, Gavin Bell, and Dan Catt brought together data from a whole bunch of online sources into a single resource which can be easily distributed to residents of a local neighbourhood. Also, because this proof-of-concept is a real newspaper (i.e. made from paper and everything), it bridges any digital divide and gives access to people who might not otherwise find such information online.

To me, the real brilliance behind the paper is the context it provides for your location. Through its simple newspaper metaphor of headings and sections, one can very quickly find something exactly, or absorb trivia by browsing the headings. So, for example, there is a section for “Healthcare” which provides a list of dentists, GPs, A&E services and the name of the Primary Care Trusts serving your area. Combining this kind of immediately useful information with some general facts about an area (crime rates and trends, green-space, recycling centres and even allotment information) gives a profoundly well-informed picture of a given neighbourhood.

In a stroke of genius, the lads have added travel times from that postcode to a series of important destinations along with travel times. So, from E5 0JA to Oxford Circus takes 4 minutes via bicycle and 42 on public transport; and it’s 3 hours to Paris or Bristol on the train.There’s even a route-map for local busses and Underground transport.

Part of the thinking behind it is that local authorities could print these every few months or so to send to newcomers. Imagine finding such a rich resource in your post after paying council tax for the first time! I’ve lived in my current town for 2 years now, and I don’t know about half the information this contains. It’s presented extremely clearly and in a very familiar format, so there is very little problem communicating across generational, cultural or potentially even linguistic divides. (Much of the information, such as journey times, doctors surgeries and crime rates would need little translation.) It also doesn’t take much imagination to see additional features or benefits spinning off of this kind of service.

Put the paper online, with live-updates of the information and widgets for transport. Add in some basic demographics (gender, age bracket, long-time resident or visitor), and you’ve got hugely-flexible possibilities for providing an extremely clear UI to your community’s site. Tailoring some specifics, such as age, might let you see more information about local schools, for example, then about old-age care. With print-on-demand kiosks in local libraries and post-offices, you could have an up-to-date snapshot of your neighbourhood whenever you need. This could be used by school children for local projects (and if they can tailor the paper themselves, how much more exciting!). It could be an aid to public transparency with clearly-presented statistics like crime and school standards rates. The list of ideas is endless, really.

That’s the vision, any way. In reality, there are still some huge hurdles to cross before this kind of service could even begin to become a reality. This project took only a few days to put together, but the supremely brainy folk behind it have years of data management skills behind them. They focused on a single postcode, and many of the data needed had to be hand-scraped from various sites and files. The work needed to launch an on-demand service would be daunting indeed, because no local authority would provide a unified point of access for this kind of information. Currently, if a council wanted to provide this kind of resource, researchers would have to go out and find the facts and figures from across the web (NHS sites, central and local government sites, education and reporting services, etc), compile them and produce an individual layout for each individual postcode. And, if you’re an organisation interested in this, you would potentially be required to pay £1000s to access the basic building-blocks: post code lookups and survey boundary data. Needless to say, local authorities and businesses would be hard-pressed to find the time to build such papers to such a fine level of localisation.

Any startup, application, or service wanting to offer localised information is up against some severe inclines. It takes little imagination to see this paper and similar applications taking off and providing huge benefit to where people spend most of their time—at home. However, I fear much of these innovations will remain in imaginations as long as so much of the material needed to build them remains locked away.

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From Nodblog

Open and Closed Case

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities

So, we’ve been banging on about opening up access to public data for a while. Talis has put its money where its mouth is and helped to fund the PDDL to give organisations a legal framework for dedicating their data to the public domain. (We’ll even host open data for free on the Platform under the Connected Commons.) We see the benefits of open data being shared innovation, and many projects exist which make use of this data for scientific, journalistic, entertaining and just plain useful purposes. We’ve been seeing a strong trend towards removing siloes and encouraging reuse of information resources to the point that we’ve begun to create our own jargon around open access. This is great, and even governments are beginning to see the benefit of this with projects like data.gov and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s advisory appointment in the UK.

But there is an alternate side to this story of opening up and sharing our data. Where there is open, there is an implied “closed” too. Some closed data is absolutely necessary—you wouldn’t argue that your recent financial transactions are data I should have a right to pry into, for obvious example. There is a lot of hidden data necessary to run applications and to make a profit, and it is entirely right that this should be the case.

But a recent case here in the UK has illustrated the point that if open data encourages innovation, closing down data can quash it. The Royal Mail recently sent cease and desist letters to the directors of ernestmarples.com, who had been providing online services with a set of API’s to turn UK postcodes into location information. This provision had enabled the building of services which, for example, let people look for jobs in their area, and monitor and map political leaflet claims. The Royal Mail charges £4000 to make use of its official list of Postcodes, and wasn’t happy with ernestmarples.org providing postcode data for free. (ernestmarples.com did not license the data, but scraped it from other sites, apparently.) As soon as ernestmarples.com stopped providing the lookup, all the services built on the data were stopped too. So, in effect, the data was enclosed again behind a barrier of a steep paywall and legal action.

There is a lot of discussion about whether the UK postcode data should be free anyway. It was funded by public funds, for one thing, and it only generates around £11million annually for Royal Mail. The subscription rate is high for startups or non-profits, especially when compared with the Zip-code data in the United States, which I found out only costs $500/year to purchase. {1} It could also be argued that the steep pricing is an archaic throw-back to a time where such services cost a lot to provide, so needed to be high in order to recover costs. But this reverse peppercorn rent could no longer be valid, and £4000 must certainly be an order of magnitude (or two) higher than the cost of provision.

There is a lot to discuss about specific datasets like this, and they may need to be tried legally and publicly before all the details are sorted out, but this case is about as illustrative as possible of the principle of encouraging innovation. A single, simple and non-charging service provided a framework for thousands of users for mostly socially-beneficial aims. Imagine the impact if hundreds of source-services had access to postcode data? Perhaps tens of thousands of users could look for employment, or track their local governmental organisations’ progress. Who knows what else might have been developed? It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to envision services tailored to your very local locality, does it? Just as easily, though, the enclosure of a single database has cut off a huge network of potential innovation.

The Guardian has covered the story, if you want more details too.

Photo: “Open/Close” bymag3737 via flickr, Creative Commons License

{1} I’m not entirely sure about the licensing of the Zip-code data, but the representative I spoke with at USPS said you can purchase the 5-digit Zipcode product for $500/a.

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From Nodblog

Britain 2.5

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities

It’s hardly new for this blog or our community to cover issues of open access and making information useful for users. But, what if we were to begin speaking in terms  such as: “A call for transparency,” or subtly replace user with citizen?  With little substantive shift of core meaning, the whole message becomes one of rights, responsibilities, and public duty.

I’ve been watching this week as the ember at the heart of this dialogue has been fanned with air-time on mainstream media, and is about to receive its fuel. First, UK Prime Minister Gorden Brown asked Sir Tim Berners-Lee  “to help us drive the opening up of access to Government data in the web over the coming months” appointing him to a special role advising Parliament. In an interview with BBC tech correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, Sir Tim discussed his position; explaining that he’s pushing for transparency: “This is our data. This is our taxpayers’ money which has created this data, so I would like to be able to see it, please.”

Sir Tim had the audience at the tech-friendly TED conference chanting “Raw Data Now” back in February, and he’s now been invited by a sitting government leader to make this happen.

This week also saw the publication of the Digital Britain report, outlining Parliament’s plans for a more connected future. I must admit, for the record, that I haven’t read all 239 pages of the report (made available via bbc.co.uk), rather, I’ve skimmed it and read several overviews. The gist seems to be that the UK plans to invest in the future of its citizens’ internet connectivity, upgrading existing infrastructure and providing access where there currently isn’t. This investment will cover both wired broadband provision (with a stated aim of 2MBps minimum for every household) and wireless, encouraging investment in 3g provision by allowing mobile companies to have their network licenses more permanently.  It recommends subsidising development wherever the market can’t provide; seemingly equating net access with public utilities (The PM further clarified his thoughts by saying the Internet is as vital as water or gas). More information on this report can be found on the summary page at the Guardian, on twitter: hashtag #digitalbritain, and Bill Thompson’s tech-centric overview.

All this week needs is a major announcement of something moving entirely to cloud-computing to look a bit like the convergence I blogged about a few days ago ;).

So, what has this incredible week brought us? It’s a governmental lead on opening up access to data. Their appointment of TBL makes me think that it’s likely we’ll see more and more linked-data projects coming from the public sector (not just access to, but usable, linked data). Over the next few years, the UK plans to improve its infrastructure and incentivize development on communications networks, and they’ve begun to use language suggesting that being part of the network and access to Public data are rights issues.

Sir Tim spoke, in the interview, about beginning with low-hanging fruit: pilot schemes which open up data and watch what happens.

What are you building?

Image: “Sparks”, by Steven Wong via flickr; Creative Commons By, Share Alike License

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From Nodblog

Web two dot oh plus one, in the cloud, with bells on…

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities

The tech world is telling a story about the Web and computing, and the mainstream media seem to be catching on. They’re hearing about clouds, wikis, and the history of the World-wide Web. The whole thing reads like some sort of legend…

It was an era, long ago, when the folk of Middle Class plugged in their Mo-Dems and listened to arcane, magical sounds as their £120 beige box enabled a blazing 14.4 kb/s connection, and they only had to wait a few minutes to call forth script and from anywhere on earth. It was an age that saw the beginnings of email, where people composed messages and sent them down the phone lines at lightning speeds (unless a packet dropped…). This was the time of Web 1.0.

Then, the web collapsed. No one used the internet any more. Modems became paperweights and millions of metres of ethernet cable were grubbed up to make room for under-floor heat in offices. The world was quiet, and the people of Middle Class forgot what they knew.

Until, there dawned the advent of Web 2.0. People re-learned their former ways, and improved upon the innovations of their fathers. Instead of sites and pages, they began to use “Web Apps” which accomplished Tasks, and they became their masters. The great titan Google was made, and he knew all and directed the world toward knowledge. The elves of the web taught men the ways of blogging and messenging and eventually (when they’d mastered all these things with wiki-training to boot) Social Media and Networking.

Only, that’s not exactly how it happened; is it? Many commentators and Alpha Geeks have divided the story of the web into convenient phases, and they’ve roughly settled around a versioning metaphor common to software. Have a look at your favorite browser, and you’ll see a version number (Safari 4 for me, if you’re interested) which lets you know how many iterations have been and gone before. There are certainly noted differences, and turning points, where people phased out their dependence on one thing for the convenience and utility of something better. Tim O’Reilly, who coined the phrase Web 2.0, wrote a much-linked post in 2005 trying to explain and crystalise some of the trends he was seeing which were different from the first few years of the web. The fact that he had to clarify what he meant, and that it took the non-geek world three years to catch up testifies to the notion that the change was gradual. It makes me think that we missed out all the .1-.10’s in the version numbers, and many alpha and beta tests along the way.

Now we are engaged in the great Web 3.0, where we are applying the logic of the past to the present and guessing at the future. Only, because no one is actually releasing versions of the web like a good, reliable software company should, the story is much more complicated—and interesting!

There are notable trends, with backers and bloggers riding various waves. But it seems to me that the point of this is a convergence. The mobile web is bringing new sorts of information to people, and they can make use of this info wherever they happen to be because of advances in devices ad connectivity. As phones and web-enabled devices get better, so to do the chips we seem to have embedded all over the place, and we can now begin to have a more clear picture of what we do through the information we gather from our heaters, cars, and pedometers. Also, as more objects become connected, the grunt-work of number-crunching and storage is becoming commoditized into big, efficient, utility-like cloud services, which host and work with our collected information much more effectively than the gadget in your hand could ever hope to do. Others, like ourselves, talk about the Semantic Web, which allows for an evolution from a bunch of connected documents to the explicit connections between bits of information.

But, I see a trend there which is common to all candidates: information. The web allowed for information to be shared, then collaboratively worked. Now, I see this information becoming useful in and of itself…as data.

Walt Mossberg talks about Web 3.0 as if it is riding on the backs of mobile and connected devices. And I think it probably is. Tim Berners-Lee recently spoke to the BBC about the future of the web including some incredible future of pixels everywhere, where any surface could display information. He’s also repeatedly talked about the future of the web being semantic (he invented the term, let’s not forget) where Linked Data is the web done right. And who am I to argue with the inventor of the Web?

But I don’t think there’s so much a conflict or competition as a coming together here. If there will be a Web 3.0 (and it seems a likely, media-friendly label), I think it will include all of these trends centred around the focus of data. The connected devices allow us access to cloud-computing and storage (computing and storage of data…). Many chips gather data about ourselves, which we can use to personalise our view on the web of data, and the Linking of this data through semantics lets it all be calculable, programmable, and useful. It kind of reminds me of a computer, you know… The chips and our collective use of web applications are input and sources, and the various devices we use are displays and UI’s onto a massive, scalable CPU in the cloud. Linked Data could be the Operating System, allowing and enabling anything to be connected and programmed.

Web 3.0, to me, is a convergence of the trends, and it’s all about data. It’s not a simple story, and any convenient label is to convenient to be comprehensive, but I’m pretty sure the next things will all centre on our ability to make use of and personalise vast chunks of previously-obtuse data.

Image “#Black rain : Convergence” by FredArmitage via flickr—Creative Commons License.