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Britain Experiments with a Language-Based Data.gov

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, November 11 2009

You can teach an old country new tricks, it seems. The United Kingdom is in the final stages of releasing Data.gov.uk, shamelessly modeled off of the Data.gov hub built under the leadership of Vivek Kundra, CIO of this former colony we've got going on this side of the pond. Only the U.K.'s portal onto the wide world of public data is being designed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who invented the web. Well played, Great Britain, well played.

In seriousness, the involvement of Berners-Lee raises the possibility that the British data site might be a step beyond its U.S. inspiration, lending itself more readily to use by normal citizens than its American counterpart has thus far proven itself to be.

That's because Berners-Lee has, for many years now, been trying to sell the world on the idea of a web were linkages are based on human language, rather than hard-coded hyperlinks. His vision is of a web that understands the connections between disparate bits of information in a way similar to how the human mind might effortlessly connect an address on London's Whitehall with the events of World War II that Winston Churchill directed from an underground bunker there. Data woven through with more human ways of interpretation might, just might, make the gap between making government information public and making it useful a little smaller. The Beeb reports:

Data.gov.uk is built with semantic web technology, which will enable the data it offers to be drawn together into links and threads as the user searches. "During a typhoid outbreak in the nineteenth century a doctor plotted where outbreaks occurred and traced the disease back to one well," explained [University of Southampton] Prof [Nigel] . "With data.gov.uk we will also be able to look for patterns." Prof Shadbolt also expects that visitors to data.gov.uk will want to make their own mash-ups from the information available.

Of course his name is Professor Shadbolt.

Anyway, back to the tech at hand. The history here is that Berners-Lee, despite his considerable evangelism, hasn't had all that much success selling the world on the idea of the semantic web. After all, how we construct the web day in and day out is baked right into it at this point, after a few decades of regular use by millions of people all over the planet. Converting a global network to a new practice at this point is a tall order. But he might have better luck with a discrete set of data, and a chance to architect out that universe out from scratch. And getting the opportunity publish all of the U.K.'s public data in his image and likeness isn't a bad start.

Data.gov.uk is expected to be released, in beta, next month. (Photo credit: Silvio Tanaka)