“It all began with a lunch. Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the world wide web, was invited to Chequers in spring 2009. A government taskforce had just published a report aimed at making Britain a digital world leader and technological reform was in the air. Even so, Berners-Lee was surprised at what came next. “The Prime Minister asked me what Britain should do in order to make the best use of the internet,” he told Prospect in early January. “I said, you should put all your government data onto the web. And he said, let’s do it.”
So begins the intriguing story, in this month’s Prospect Magazine, of how Gordon Brown and the government “gets” the web and is using open source tools to revolutionise the publication of public information in this country.
Within twelve months of the meeting, the government had launched its website data.gov.uk, bringing together over 2,500 public data records, ranging from abandoned vehicles to hospitals statistics, and made them available online to the public.
Berners-Lee’s pitch to Gordon Brown was simple:
“That if this data – exam results, postbox locations, weather reports, and most crucially, [Ordinance Survey] maps – was put online, people would find a use for it. If you build it, they will come.”
The opportunities for open government were made clear by President Obama’s publication of how taxpayer dollars are spent on the US government website Recoery.gov last year.
In Britain, Prospect’s James Crabtree and Tom Chatfeild are exicted by the opportunities for how this will affect British information:
“In 2008 Channel 4 set up 4ip, an internet division led by internet expert Tom Loosemore, designed to do “public service data mashing.” Initial projects include a website to compare schools, which combines exam results, government reports, and even measures on pupil happiness and teacher ability drawn out of ofsted reports. the site could quickly demystify the decisions, and tradeoffs, inherent in picking a good school. Also under 4ip’s banner, in partnership with the charity Mysociety, is Mapumental – a site that mashes together maps with data on commuting times and house prices. Users can answer in seconds the question: “if I have this much money to spend, and want to live this far away from my office, where can I live?” As Loosemore explains, moreover, this is only the beginning: both the schools and houses sites could soon include other data, like crime levels and os maps, taken from data.gov.uk.”