Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tim Berners-Lee on the Future of the Web

I just watched a TED Talk by Tim Burners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. His main point was that the current Web was mainly a collection of linked documents, and what we need to do next is transform it into a collection of linked data. Once a major portion of our data becomes freely available on the web, it will start generating major social benefits.

Tim mentions two items that resonated with me. First, ALL government data should be freely available on the Web. After all, we paid for it, and we should rightly claim free access to it. (There may be some exceptions, such as personal data of government employees, but this is a relatively small portion of the government data). It seems to me that in a truly free open society, the "Freedom of Information" act should become almost obsolete since everything that it would have been used for in the past is now readily available. That would be a wonderful principle for the Obama administration to follow.

The second issue is medical data. Three years ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. We caught it early and now I'm cured, but it is a much more common problem than many people realize. One thing that really surprised me is that I was not asked to fill out any survey on my lifestyle or exposure to various chemicals. It would seem to me that such detailed background data should be collected about everyone who has a major disease and made available to researchers looking for common links. This is just one example of data that should be on the web. In this case it has potential for major health benefits if links can be established to various things that increase the risk of a disease.

There are two interesting items that Tim Berners-Lee did not mention about the future of the web. First, it is establishing new business models. Old ones, such as newspapers and the music recording industry are having to make substantial changes to survive. Significant new developments, specifically the open source software movement and Wikipedia could not have been predicted by any business model analysis before they happened. Yet they are becoming increasingly important.

The second unforeseen development is the use of the web for organizing mass social movements. and various other political movements are examples of this. Allowing groups of people to come together and organize in ways that were previously impractical may be one of the most profound impacts of the web in the long run.

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