Tag Archives: Tim Berners-Lee

Happy Birthday Web, Italy needs you

On the road again. This time I am going to a birthday party: we celebrate the twentieth birthday of the World Wide Web. The date: Monday, November 14th. The location: Rome, Hadrian’s Temple. The guest of honor: sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s proud father, who will deliver the keynote speech. Much more modestly, I too will hold a short talk about Wikicrazia, i.e. collaborative, Internet-mediated governance.

In the foreground, the party; in the background, difficult times for Italy. But they only make the celebration more necessary: nobody dare take it from us! As Saint Augustine wrote sixteen centuries ago, we are the agents of the times: if we don’t like them, we can always invent new times, or at least try to. A growing number of Italian citizens, connected by the web, is doing just that. I am trying to do my bit, too: Wikitalia – we will talk about it on Monday – is exactly that, Italy’s birthday present to the Web, and the Web’s to Italy.

(The video above was not made for the occasion: it is rather an attempt to explain to some interested non-Italians what I want to do with my life. But I find it fits the occasion well.)

The downsizing of data.gov: learning to manage expectations

Tim Berners-Lee at TED giving the famous "Raw data now" talk

Bad news for open government and open data activists everywhere. data.gov, the Obama administration flagship open data portal, is being taken down downsized on the wake of the recent federal budget cuts. So is former White House CTO Vivek Kundra’s IT dashboard. Especially data.gov is a hard blow: that is the template, imitated by the faster-moving governments and envied by the citizens of the slower-moving ones.

What went wrong? Steve O’Keeffe summarized it like this: GIGO and overpromise. I am not qualified to judge GIGO in this case, but overpromise rings a bell. The movement is wired along Tim Berner-Lee’s “Raw Data Now”: release the datasets, civic hackers and market forces will do the rest. Decision makers in the faster-moving administrations were all too happy to comply: the number of datasets you release is an easy to monitor measure of acitivity, and it looks great on press releases.

The demand-side has been sagging. This is unsurprising: interpreting data to tell causally convincing stories is hard. Civic hackers need to know their measurement theory, probability theory, statistics, econometrics; computer prowess does not take you beyond download. We did have some good examples of data driven journalism, but most of the media ignore the data and stick to interviewing academia and gov brass when they want coverage of economic/social/environmental issues. Makes sense too: there is not enough readership for data driven journalism yet.

Worse, we were told that new ecosystem of innovative services would arise from the availability of government data, leading to growth and jobs. Hard to resist: the package of innovation, growth and jobs in one phrase is one of the very few passwords that will unlock serious funding these days, and proponents and funders alike went with it. Couple of years down the road, we do have some cool apps and some companies that use the data. We even have some jobs generated around data availability, but the numbers are unimpressive. The most I’ve heard trumpeted is 60 employees for a single company. That, too, is hardly a surprise: if your business is based on an open-access, unexhaustible resource like gov data, economic theory tells us it’s going to be hard to bake any seriouse margin into it. You tend to get undercut and outcompeted by non profits and zero-overhead college students operating out of laptops. Profit requires scarcity, not abundance – just ask music recording studios. Keefe’s post contains an interesting little fact, and that is the private business has indeed invested in data, but private and very muck locked down.

Given all this, and in the light of the demise downsizing of data.gov, I would recommend the open gov movement to resist the temptation to promise anything we are not sure we can achieve in any scenario. Envision low-cost, low-hype operations; offer the collaboration of nonprofits and the civil society; emphasize that, while people are welcome to make money out of value-added-on-open-data services, that is not the point of the exercise. The point is increasing the transparency, accountability, and efficiency of public policy. It will be less cool, it will take us off the spotlight and the big funding grants, but it will keep the movement going, almost invulnerable to disenchantment, budget cuts and lobby capture. If I am wrong, great: another year from now, we can make a comeback and boast all the jobs open data will have created in the mean time.

Sapere al popolo: il governo britannico libera i dati

Una buona notizia: sir Tim Berners-Lee ha convinto il governo britannico a mettere i propri dati a disposizione del pubblico (fonte: BBC). E’ online un sito che si chiama data.gov.uk (riferimento ovvio al famoso sito di Obama). Mentre scrivo sono online 2.879 basi dati, ma altri verranno (in effetti, come tutti i governi, anche quello di Sua Maestà sta seduto su una tale massa di dati che neppure i suoi dirigenti sanno esattamente cosa hanno per le mani). Gli sviluppatori sembrano interessati: il sito riporta già 29 applicazioni create a partire da quei dati, inclusa la straordinaria Cyclestreets per chi si sposta in bicicletta. Il sindaco di Londra, Boris Johnson, si accoda. Ha annunciato l’apertura di un “magazzino digitale” che conterrà inizialmente 200 basi dati centrate sulla capitale.

L’impatto di questa mossa è difficile da sopravvalutare. Non solo per la miriade di servizi che diventano possibili, ma anche perché costruisce un luogo dove hackers e funzionari pubblici possono – devono – interagire; e così facendo favorisce il “coming together” di due culture la cui alleanza può essere davvero un potente fattore di modernizzazione e civiltà, come dicevo dopo Wikicrats.

E noi? Sarebbe interessante sapere cosa ne pensa Tito, ministeriale digitale e – da qualche tempo – anche blogger…

(Hat tip: Alberto D’Ottavi)