Sir Tim Tackles Online Government


by Tony Kontzer

It's been quite a few months for World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.

First, in April, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. A week later, he was one of six faculty members at MIT who were elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Then, on June 8, he celebrated his 53rd birthday by receiving a lifetime achievement Webby award.

Now, he's followed up this collection of honors with another potentially important professional contribution: He's helping the British government determine its path for posting government data online, and his efforts could have significant implications for a similar effort in the United States.

Governments putting data online is nothing new. In most of the Western World, citizens now can go online to do things like register vehicles, file income tax returns, or make camping reservations. But the British leadership has decided the time has come for online government data to deliver maximum value, and that means putting it up in an open format that's modular and scalable. At least, that's the position Berners-Lee took in a document posted recently to the Worldwide Web Consortium's site.

The document was prepared just two weeks after the British Government pegged Berners-Lee to help it identify the best way to publish government data to the Web. In the paper, entitled "Putting Government Data Online," Berners-Lee makes the argument that Linked Data, a best practice for exposing, sharing, and connecting formerly disparate pieces of information--and part of his Semantic Web initiative--is the most logical technology choice for ensuring that the numerous flavors of government data integrate as smoothly as possible.

The point, writes Berners-Lee, is to satisfy the three primary objectives of making government data available online: ensuring greater government accountability, contributing valuable information about the world, and improving government efficiency. Converting government information into Linked Data--without altering the original source of that information--would make it easier to establish connections between data, mash together different types of data to tell different stories, and add more Linked Data to the equation over time, Berners-Lee writes. That said, he acknowledges that, partially to ensure the privacy of personally identifiable information, it's smartest to go for "low-hanging fruit" at first. In other words, government data containing personally identifiable information probably shouldn't be among the first types of data posted.

Berners-Lee also insists that while top leaders should form the mandates to make this information-sharing evolution take place, the agencies that own the various pools of data should be encouraged to handle the conversion and posting themselves, and linking those pools together would come later. That commonly used model often leads to many hours spent establishing an ontology that will never be finished. Grass roots action, he writes, is essential to making sure the effort gets off the ground, and if anyone knows how to start a grassroots technology movement, it's Berners-Lee.

Oh, and don't think his work in this area will be limited to the U.K. From its first day, the Obama Administration established transparent government data as a priority, so you can expect the U.S. government to be keeping a close eye on the effort's progress.


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