Tim Berners-Lee: Corporations Would Benefit From Releasing Their Data

The inventor of the World Wide Web says sharing is caring

Tim Berners-Lee has called on businesses to be more giving with their data.

The open data concept closely follows the ideas of open source, arguing that certain information should be freely available for everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.

The father of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, is a vocal proponent of the open data movement, having helped the UK government launch data.gov.uk, a project to make almost all non-personal government data available online. Our colleagues from silicon.de caught up with Berners-Lee in Dublin last week, to talk about the benefits of sharing.

How do you see the future of open data in Europe?
Europe is a little bit behind US with open data projects, but it could become a world leader, all it needs is a push. If open data becomes a pan-European initiative, it might be quite effective. And it’s not just about the government transparency, but also about economic benefits.

For example, European countries could open the data about the roads and transport, and share it. Then, working out the journey from Dublin to Rome using busses, ferries and trains would be really simple. For that to happen, all of the schedules from all of the European travel companies would have to be published. But the whole of Europe would run better, because of that data.

How do you convince big corporations to open up their data?
When the web was young, businesses would have websites, but they didn’t want to share data. For example, a website of a bookshop wouldn’t have a catalogue of books. People thought, “Why should we do that? We would give our competition ability to look at what we have in stock.” For a little while, nobody would put the catalogues online, just the general information about the shop. Businesses didn’t want to publish prices online, or the stock levels. That was strictly internal information. Until the customers got tired of receiving e-mails saying, “Thank you for ordering this book. It’s on back-order and will be with you in three months.”

In the end, the first companies that would be honest about their stock suddenly became the only people to deal with. This is progressive competitive disclosure. The more information the company gives to the customer, the easier it is to deal with that customer.

When you talk to CIOs, on one side, they are saying that you shouldn’t hand out data about the products, and on the other side they are paying millions to push as much data about their products to the consumers as possible. We have to understand that sharing data brings benefits. 

What about all the various formats of data?
Different companies have different types of data, shaped by years of use of proprietary systems. We have to make it homogenous, so we can work across databases. For that, it is necessary to agree on standards.

And who monitors the quality of data? If governments publish everything, are we in danger of drowning in transparency?
You are right. Publishing tons of information in unusable format doesn’t help. We have decided on a five star system, which rates the quality of data. You get one star if the data is available, even if it’s in a terrible format. Second star if it’s in a machine-readable form. Three stars if it’s in an open standard. Four stars if you can put it into RDF (Resource Description Framework). You get a fifth star when data is linked to the data cloud.

There are currently organisations in the UK and US that can turn three star data into five star linked data, and do all sorts of cool stuff with it. 

Who should protect the privacy of data? Do we need an international watchdog?
There are three broad areas of infringing privacy, all very different. First, there are companies which really need the information to make their service more useful. They are good for the consumer, but they do keep and use your information. The second category is companies which conglomerate data. Here, we should have laws against de-anonymisation of data. Then the data remains useful, but safe for the individual that provided it.

And the third type of infringing privacy is deliberate traffic and activity monitoring, and we should definitely make that illegal, unless for very serious purposes, like fighting organised crime. In my book, a child stealing a song is not a serious criminal. So this is where we need a watchdog. To establish what constitutes these serious purposes.

Silicon.de’s questions were posed in an open Q and A session by Sybille Gassner.

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