Could the solution to some of the major economic, social and environmental challenges facing the world be found in the creation of a web of data, linking data across sources to open them up to sharing and development? Or do these problems need to be tackled from a smaller starting point, such as ensuring individual rights and empowerment around data.
At the Open Data Summit 2016 on 1st November, the Web of Data was the linking theme across the day. In the opening panel discussion, Baronness Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of Lastminute.com and founder of Doteveryone, explained: “There are many challenges which could be addressed by a web of data, but I am not sure they are being. Climate change, mass migration, shifts in the nature of work, differences in income - all of these could be better understood by policy makers if they understood data better, such as data on where migrants are coming from, where they end up, what work they do.”
To get to that level of evidence-based decision making, however, requires a degree of data literacy which she does not yet perceive. “There needs to be a deeper understanding in the private sector, public sector and among not-for-profits of the power of this. It still feels like a closed community - it needs more people getting involved. The UK has taken a lead, but we need to keep the pressure on,” she said.
Baronness Fox pointed out that every new generation of government ministers needs to be re-educated about policies which have already been adopted - such as the UK Government’s commitment to and funding of open data - as well as being educated about the latest developments. She recalled that, “when we started Lastminute.com, convincing people that customers would use their credit card on the web was a constant issue. We can never stop persuading people that data is powerful - we can’t take it for granted.”
The appointment of Matt Hancock MP as Minister of State responsible for digital policy at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in July 2016, despite being data-savvy, shows how important it is to keep lobbying. Sir Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder of the Open Data Institute, pointed out that, “now we have got a new Minister, we need to go back and remind him of the open data principles and get them extended to local government. That is unfinished business.”
He provided a prime example of how open data has helped to solve transport issues for London residents, but how limited the uptake of this idea has been elsewhere. “Outside of the confines of London, transport data is not open because of the contracts between local government and carriers. They have not realised the benefits of making data accessible in a common format. It is extremely difficult to persuade local government of the benefits of the network effect. Timetables are not open, fare data is not open,” he said.
Shadbolt explained: “The web of data is a simple idea - open, machine-readable, with identifiers of data categories - but the foundations haven’t been laid yet. We need to persuade them of the value of standards and incentivise them to allow developers to come in and create apps.”
With Sport England as a sponsor, it was perhaps not surprising that sport was identified as prime territory for both open data and a web of data platform. Sir Tim Berners Lee, creator of the world wide web and co-founder of the ODI, pointed out that, “Transport for London has done really good things for open data by making it much easier to use public transport, so we are seeing them do so in greater numbers.”
“Imagine if the same thing could be done for sport. At the moment, it takes a lot of effort to find out where facilities are and when they are open. If all of the owners of those facilities got on board with open data, if it works for transport across the city, why shouldn’t it also be used to help people get fit?” he said.
Getting all interested parties to agree is no small matter, however. Shadbolt described platform and API development as needing to be done top-down, bottom-up and middle-out. “It requires all of the stakeholders to get together and collaborate,” he said.
Berners-Lee has confronted this challenge many times, not least in the need to establish common standards for the publication of open data. “One of the principles of open data is standards,” he said. “In some areas, that exists, like street mapping, but in others it is very new, like sport.”
He acknowledged that, “agreeing with other people is painful and time-consuming. If you get different ideas on how to publish and exchange data, it takes a lot to compromise. Coming to consensus takes real effort and courage to let your own ideas go, but it is very valuable. Even once you have done that, you have to go to meet your peers in the US, India, Latin America. You need to work on that consensus early or you end up with different standards.”
Adoption of new data-driven services by users is critical to their success and sustainability, as demonstrated by the rise of City Mapper based on TfL open data, for example. Baronness Fox pointed out that 23% of UK citizens are unable to do six basic digital things, like search, shop onlne or keep their personal information secure. “The digital divide is still there, so we need to be lobbying Matthew Hancock about those skills. That has got to be underpinned with targeted resources and a development plan. It is about people being competent with their own data, understanding what might or might not be safe,” she said.
While open data has reached the second level of maturity, a new contender to solve the world’s problems is now being discussed in the form of blockchain. In response to a question from the audience about the opportunity, Shadbolt said: “We do need to understand what problems distributed ledgers solve and the opportunities they offer, but there is a lot of excitement around them. The web was thought of as distributed, because the idea was to push data back to the edge of the web.”
Berners-Lee added: “Where it is important to establish something as a public fact, notarised by some authority and baked into public blockchain, it is very interesting. A lot of the use cases are only interested in pieces of blockchain.”
He suggested it could prove valuable for the management of DNS, which is currently run by a small group of 13 organisations free of charge. Blockchain could encrypt the unique URL of every webpage into a system accessible anywhere without the need for these central registries. But he offered this warning against adopting the solution for limited, single domain purposes: “Using blockchain assumes others will notice and be motivated to keep going. A single blockchain doesn’t work.”