Sir Tim Berners-Lee: Open government and the World Wide Web

28 04 2010

The second WWW keynote session began at 11 a.m. with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, sitting down to a keynote plenary panel discussion on issues surrounding open government and the World Wide Web today.

WWW 2010 - Panel. Left to right, on stage: Tim Berners-Lee, Andrew McLaughlin, Nigel Shadbolt, David Ferriero and Paul Jones. Mediated by James Hendler. Introduction by Michael Rappa followed by N.C. Lt. Governor Walter Dalton. April 28, 2010. Photo by Elon University Relations photographer Kim Walker. Creative Commons rights.

The panel was moderated by James Hendler, a pioneer of the semantic Web from RPI. Panelists included Andrew McLaughlin, deputy CTO for the US Executive Office of the President; Nigel Shadbolt, director of the Web Science Trust and Web Foundation; Paul Jones, UNC professor and director of; and David Ferriero, archivist of the United States.

Each panelist had an opportunity to answer a question, before opening it up to discussion to the audience.

Berners-Lee first addressed the overlying question of why society should push for access to government data on the Web.

“It is a resource that has huge value,” Berners-Lee said. “It turns out the data is much more powerful when matched up with something else online. The real benefit of the Web is the serendipity. You find that people will use the information for all kinds of other things.”

He says that open government on the Web also implies greater transparency, allowing the way the country operates to become very apparent and enables people to hold the government accountable. Berners-Lee says this can lead to stronger checks and balances and opens the government to the constructive criticism of the people.

“What keeps me up at night is more having to do with the culture of the government than anything else,” Ferriero said.  “For me, it’s a social problem. It is a bottom-up initiative (to encourage agencies to undertake more transparent practices.) Governments need to be transparent, collaborative and participatory.”

McLaughlin says one way society can encourage agencies to assume more transparent practices is by showing how open data sources can actually improve business practices.

“Open data actually helps you do your job better,” McLaughlin said. “We need to persuade companies that they can look better and operate more effectively by freeing the data.”

Jones spoke about some local initiatives, including the North Carolina Sunshine Foundation. The organization has developed a reputation as a strong advocate for open access to government information.  Citizen participation is crucial to the continued push for open government on the Web, he said.

“We’re trying to pull off a revolution as to how governments relate to data…there’s going to be some turbulence,” McLaughlin said.

As citizens continue to push back through the “turbulence” in the fight for open government on the Web, Shadbolt raised a rhetorical question that struck the core of the issue:

“How are you going to make sense of the data around you if you can’t find it?” Shadbolt asked. “We’ve got a long ways to go… but the assumption is we can move there.”

-By Ashley Dischinger

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