Web inventor discusses importance of open data

Monday - 8/16/2010, 4:00pm EDT

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, head, W3C

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Today, Federal News Radio brings you the Best of the DorobekInsider. This interview originally aired on June 18, 2010.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is a pretty important person when it comes to the 21st century.

He pretty much invented the World Wide Web, and currently leads the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

He's also a big proponent of linked data -- a concept that he says differs somewhat from open data.

"The Web works by everybody doing their bit and finding others' [work] valuable. So, if you put your data out there, it may not be that you actually see the benefit; however, it will be very beneficial to the fact that everybody else has [something]. Say, for example, if -- before -- you wanted to find out about something that is actually in another department, you had to make some official request . . . and then you'd get the data and maybe somebody would give you a paper brochure, but you have to really negotiate to get the data. Now, in the new world, where they put the data on the Web publicly, that's actually very beneficial [even] from department to department."

So, open data doesn't simply help with massive federal initiatives. It cuts down on paperwork and manpower even when it comes to two offices sharing information.

Increasingly, too, the open data tools are getting easier to use.

"All sorts of companies are producing tools out there. Some of them are user interfaces and some of them are back-end tools, so on your websites you can produce streams of data [and] the website can be automatically updated from data streams, and so on. It's a big world out there."

Although federal agencies have been mandated to open up their data, some are finding this to be a daunting task. Before President Obama's memo, others voiced concerns about how much time it would take to make all of the data public.

Berners-Lee says this is why it is important to join an interest group or meet-up. Even if you have already started making data public, he adds, it is never too late to learn more and share best practices.

"One of the golden rules when it comes to [how much time it takes], is that this should become part of the way that you do everything anyway. It shouldn't be an extra activity. So, if you are producing a report every quarter, and if, to do that, you produce a spreadsheet, then it should be made as easy as possible for you to upload the spreadsheet every time -- every quarter or every week -- onto some website where it can be part of the open data movement."

What about the data quality, though? Uploading everything one has is one thing, but how can agencies make it really useful to those who might benefit from its being available in the first place?

Berners-Lee says all you have to do, really, is be honest.

"[Some say], 'What about the data quality? If I put this out there, surely I'll be held to a higher standard.' Well, not necessarily. The really important thing is for you to be open about what the quality is. No data is perfect. Nobody expects it to be perfect, but they do like to have metadata about it. "

He adds that, when using data from another source, giving feedback about that data's usefulness is important, as well.

"When other people put data out there, respect that this is part of their job. This is not an extra job. They produced the data for one purpose [and] if you use it for another purpose, it may be beneficial. . . . It has to be give and take."

Learn more about this:

Tim Berners-Lee: Putting Government Data online

Slashdot: Berners-Lee Deconstructs a Bag of Chips

YouTube: Gov 2.0 Expo 2010: Tim Berners-Lee, "Open, Linked Data for a Global Community"

W3C: eGovernment Interest Group