If you know anything about the history of the World Wide Web, it should come as no surprise to you that Sir Tim Berners-Lee was the keynote speaker at CERN‘s “World Wide Web @ 20” celebration earlier today (about 16:00 UTC, 13 March 2009).  If you missed the live broadcast, I understand that video of the event may be available on Eurovision.

Sir Tim made it clear fairly early in his talk that he did not want to spend too much time looking back.  He mentioned that one of the risks of a celebration of this sort – a 20 year anniversary or birthday – is that of focusing on what was already done and seeing it as simply the past.  He rejected that idea and said that he expects “even more boat rocking” to come, especially as we “get all the data on the Web.”  He predicted that there will be “new waves of things we’ve never imagined” and insisted that there is a lot to do.

I was reminded of Vint Cerf‘s recent comments at the opening of the Internet Society‘s new Geneva office, which I called a subtle call to arms.  Tim Berners-Lee was less subtle though, stating directly that the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium – which he helped to create in 1994) needs [more] volunteers.  He then went on to discuss in more detail some of the projects currently underway that may shape the future of the Web and of the broader Internet.

The first initiative he singled out was that of the Mobile Web; facilitating Web browsing on mobile devices.  Sir Tim pointed out that there are already more mobile devices accessing the Web than PC’s and laptops and that in developing countries they are (and will likely remain) the only method of Web access for a majority of people.  For me, this makes mobile Web access at least as important as traditional browser access going forward:  As the next 80% of the world gets online it will be with an increasingly large proportion of mobile devices, even as those who are already connected transfer more and more of their Web and Internet related activities to similar mobile devices.

He then talked more about ‘getting the data out there’ and specifically about linked data.  He described the idea of linked data as being just like hypertext but with data (instead of html pages).  This is the concept of the Semantic Web.  He referenced his 2006 article “Linked Data,” which starts with a clear and concise introduction:

The Semantic Web isn’t just about putting data on the web. It is about making links, so that a person or machine can explore the web of data.  With linked data, when you have some of it, you can find other, related, data.

Like the web of hypertext, the web of data is constructed with documents on the web. However,  unlike the web of hypertext,  where links are relationships anchors in hypertext documents written in HTML, for data they links  between arbitrary things described by RDF,.  The URIs identify any kind of object or  concept.   But for HTML or RDF, the same expectations apply to make the web grow:

1. Use URIs as names for things
2. Use HTTP URIs so that people can look up those names.
3. When someone looks up a URI, provide useful information.
4. Include links to other URIs. so that they can discover more things.

Simple.  In fact, though, a surprising amount of data isn’t linked in 2006, because of problems with one or more of the steps.  This article discusses solutions to these problems, details of implementation, and factors affecting choices about how you publish your data.

Along this vein he touched on the Linking Open Data (LOD) project (which Chris Bizer later expanded upon during the panel discussion), collaborative data projects (citing the Open Street Map as one example) and the hoarding or sharing of data on social networking sites.

When discussing the Semantic Web and greater access to and availability of data on this large of a scale, my mind often wanders to privacy and confidentiality issues.  Apparently I am not alone in this as one of the audience questions following his speech asked Sir Tim for his take on just that subject; privacy when all this data is out there for all to see.  He replied that the data is not necessarily available to just anyone, pointing out that each individuals view of the Web is different based on their relationships and connections.  When you are “logged on” you may see friends pictures and details that others do not.  He explained that participating in the Web creates a social change and that we need technology to support that change.  Terms to describe data’s intended use and tools to facilitate the proper licensing of that data were the answers he proposed.  This is similar to proposals I have heard/read recently – including the last chapter of “The Future of the Internet” (by Jonathan Zittrain) – and as someone who believes in technical and social solutions to technical and social problems, I must agree.  This is one of the areas with plenty of work to be done and will be an exciting space to watch (or better yet, join) I believe.

From mobile web and linked data he moved on to discuss what he called Web Science and I was intrigued.  He compared the current number of web pages (10^11) on the Internet to the number of neurons in the human brain (roughly the same) and then expanded this contrast to the research being done on the brain.  He talked about how a multitude of various disciplines must come together to properly research the brain because of it’s complexity and said that the same interdisciplinary research is needed to really understand the Web; beyond just developers tracing links, psychologists and economists are needed to understand why we create the links we do, etc.  One question that he called to be asked is whether the Web could allow bad ideas to dominate the world the way that they have taken over individual nations in the past, and with no nearby planet to step in and right the ship the way that other nations have, could this be potentially devastating?  The lighter side of Web Science is that unlike the brain, we created the Web and thus our quest is not only to understand it but to continue to engineer it to serve humanity.  “The Web should serve humanity” he said.

He went on to state that one of the first problems we face when attempting to make the Web serve humanity is that almost 80% of the people on this planet do not use the Web yet.  He listed the potential difficulties that might be the cause of this:  Not having a phone, or not having a browser on their phone.  Maybe the browser on their phone is not compatible with the web server in question.  Or possibly this person has a compatible web-enabled phone but the site they want or need to reach is in a font or language that is impossible for them to read.  Beyond this, there may be social incompatibilities – perhaps a social networking site does not integrate with the structure of their village.  He went on to say that in some cases what will be needed is that someone in the village set up a web server and program a site which matches the social structure of that region or locality – thus enabling the entire family or village or country to access the Web in a method that is comfortable and familiar to them.

With that Sir Tim un-officially announced the formation/launch of the World Wide Web Foundation which is currently in process.  Its goal will be to more broadly address that the Web should serve humanity and it will operate primarily on volunteerism and philanthropy, he explained.  There is a temporary web site up currently and on the front page it states:

The Foundation will fund and coordinate efforts that work toward a future served by One Web that is free and open; where understanding, capability and robustness of the Web improves; where the Web is usable by all people; and where useful content and services are available for everyone.

A noble endevour indeed.  If you too believe that the Internet is for Everyone, I highly recomend that you look into joining the Internet Society (if you haven’t already) and taking an active role in the IETF and/or your local RIR.  As for Tim Berners-Lee’s keynote today; as a direct result I now have several new projects and sites to keep an eye on, the World Wide Web Foundation among them.

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