Berners-Lee Data Site Struggles Under Traffic Pressure

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A new site designed to make government data more available has struggled to stay live shortly after being launched

The inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has launched a site devoted to making government data more available to citizens to help improve public services and boost innovation in the UK.

However, despite its mandate to make data more available to everyone in the UK, the site appeared to be struggling to keep up with the interest it has provoked, with some attempts to access it by eWEEK Europe UK resulting in an error message and others taking an extended time to load.

The data.gov.uk site, launched this week, contains more than 2,500 sets of data from across government that are already being used for a variety of applications, including a video which shows traffic flow over the UK’s motorways over the last ten years and a “School Finder” tool to allow parents to search for schools by location and Ofsted reports.

Berners-Lee, along with Professor Nigel Shadbolt from the University of Southhampton, claims the site is based on a new, open licence which apparently allows government-owned data to be freely used by anyone. “Making public data available for re-use is about increasing accountability and transparency and letting people create new, innovative ways of using it,” said Berners-Lee. “Government data should be a public resource. By releasing it, we can unlock new ideas for delivering public services, help communities and society work better, and let talented entrepreneurs and engineers create new businesses and services. ”

But despite plans to create innovative new data-sharing applications, a lot of government mapping data is currently controlled by Ordnance Survey which manages its content through a variety of licences. However, Shadbolt told the BBC that discussions are ongoing for OS to make the data available by 1 April.

Last November, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that Ordnance Survey maps will be freely available online from April 2010, as part of a government drive to give people greater access to public information. “We are determined to be the first government in the world to open up public information in a way that is far more accessible to the general public,” the Prime Minister said at the time.

Commenting on the launch of the data site, which has been launched in Beta, Minister for Digital Britain Stephen Timms said the project delivers on the government’s “Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government” plan, announced by the Prime Minister in December. “Freeing up public data will create major new opportunities for businesses. By allowing industry to use data creatively they can develop new services and generate economic value from it,” said Timms. “This is a tremendous opportunity for UK firms to secure better value for money in service delivery and to develop innovative services which will help to grow the economy.”

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Also commenting on the launch, former Minister for Digital Engagement, Tom Watson said it marked a change of culture for the UK’s civil service. “…it marks a milestone in cultural change for the civil service that many thought would never happen,” Watson wrote in his blog. “The data sets that are being liberated make the public sector just that little bit more accountable. I’m not sure where the site will go but I do know that the small number of civil servants who worked with Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt to make it happen deserve our respect and admiration. They swam against the tide and, for once, they’ve succeeded.”

Watson stood-down as a Cabinet Office minister last July as part of a government reshuffle catalysed by the expenses scandal which has hit MPs from every party.

Berners-Lee, along with Amstrad-founder and The Apprentice star, Sir Alan Sugar, were appointed as special advisers to help the government better engage with the Internet and boost its business credentials. Commenting on the appointment of Berners-Lee, Tom Steinberg, founder of MySociety.org, a foundation dedicated to helping UK citizens better engage with government via the Internet, said he welcomed the announcement. “I think that it’s great to have such an eminent and successful name associated with the cause, and I wish him luck,” he said at the time.

In October, Steinberg, announced that he had agreed to help the Conservative party develop its online policies.

The government’s decision to provide greater access to public data is partly in response to the Guardian newspaper’s ‘Free Our Data’ campaign, which aims to promote “data openness”. The paper has campaigned for more than three years to persuade the government to “abandon copyright on essential national data, making it freely available to anyone, while keeping the crucial task of collecting that data in the hands of taxpayer-funded agencies”.


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