The Future of the Web with Sir Tim Berners-Lee @ Nesta

The Future of the Web with Sir Tim Berners-Lee at Nesta, London, July 8.

My notes from the Nesta event, The Future of the Web with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, held in London on July 8, 2008.

nesta panel
Panel at ‘The Future of the Web’ with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Nesta

As usual, let me know of any errors or corrections, comments are welcome, and comments in [square brackets] are mine. I wanted to get these notes up quickly so they’re pretty much ‘as is’, and they’re pretty much about the random points that interested me and aren’t necessarily representative. I’ve written up more detailed notes from a previous talk by Tim Berners-Lee in March 2007, which go into more detail about web science.

[Update: the webcast is online at http://www.nesta.org.uk/future-of-web/ so you might as well go watch that instead.]

The event was introduced by NESTA’s CEO, Jonathan Kestenbaum. Explained that online contributions from the pre-event survey, and from the (twitter) backchannel would be fed into the event. Other panel members were Andy Duncan from Channel 4 and the author Charlie Leadbeater though they weren’t introduced until later.

Tim Berners-Lee’s slides are at http://www.w3.org/2008/Talks/0708-ws-30min-tbl/.

So, onto the talk:
He started designing the web/mesh, and his boss ‘didn’t say no’.

He didn’t want to build a big mega system with big requirements for protocols or standards, hierarchies. The web had to work across boundaries [slide 6?]. URIs are good.

The World Wide Web Consortium as the point where you have to jump on the bob sled and start steering before it gets out of control.

Producing standards for current ideas isn’t enough; web science research is looking further out. Slide 12 – Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) – analysis and synthesis; promote research; new curriculum.

Web as blockage in sink – starts with a bone, stuff builds up around it, hair collect, slime – perfect for bugs, easy for them to get around – we are the bugs (that woke people up!). The web is a rich environment in which to exist.

Semantic web – what’s interesting isn’t the computers, or the documents on the computers, it’s the data in the documents on the computers. Go up layers of abstraction.

Slide on the Linked Open Data movement (dataset cloud) [Anra from Culture24 pointed out there’s no museum data in that cloud].

Paraphrase, about the web: ‘we built it, we have a duty to study it, to fix it; if it’s not going to lead to the kind of society we want, then tweak it, fix it’.

‘Someone out there will imagine things we can’t imagine; prepare for that innovation, let that innovation happen’. Prepare for a future we can’t imagine.

End of talk! Other panelists and questions followed.

Charles Leadbeater – talked about the English Civil War, recommends a book called ‘The World Turned Upside Down’. The bottom of society suddenly had the opportunity to be in charge. New ‘levellers‘ movement via the web. Participate, collaborate, (etc) without the trappings of hierarchy. ‘Is this just a moment’ before the corporate/government Restoration? Iterative, distributed, engaged with practice.

Need new kinds of language – dichotomies like producer/consumer are disabling. Is the web – a mix of academic, geek, rebel, hippie and peasant village cultures – a fundamentally different way of organising, will it last? Are open, collaborative working models that deliver the goals possible? Can we prevent creeping re-regulation that imposes old economics on the new web? e.g. ISPs and filesharing. Media literacy will become increasingly important. His question to TBL – what would you have done differently to prevent spam while keeping the openness of the web? [Though isn’t spam more of a problem for email at the moment?]

Andy Duncan, CEO of Channel 4 – web as ‘tool of humanity’, ability for humans to interact. Practical challenges to be solved. £50million 4IP fund. How do we get, grow ideas and bring them to the wider public, and realise the positive potential of ideas. Battle between positive public benefit vs economic or political aspects.

The internet brings more/different perspectives, but people are less open to new ideas – they get cosy, only talk to like-minded people in communities who agree with each other. How do you get people engaged in radical and positive thinking? [This is a really good observation/question. Does it have to do with the discoverability of other views around a topic? Have we lost the serendipity of stumbling across random content?]

Open to questions. ‘Terms and conditions’ – all comments must have a question mark at the end of them. [I wish all lectures had this rule!]

Questions from the floor: 1. why is the semantic web taking so long; 2. 3D web; 3. kids.
TBL on semantic web – lots of exponential growth. SW is more complicated to build than HTML system. Now has standard query language (SPARQL). Didn’t realise at first that needed a generic browser and linked open data. (Moving towards real world).

[This is where I started to think about the question I asked, below – cultural heritage institutions have loads of data that could be open and linked, but it’s not as if institutions will just let geeks like me release it without knowing where and why and how it will be used – and fair enough, but then we need good demonstrators. The idea that the semantic web needs lots of acronyms (OWL, GRDDL, RDF, SPARQL) in place to actually happen is a perception I encounter a lot, and I wanted an answer I could pass on. If it’s ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’, then even better…]

Questions from twitter (though the guy’s laptop crashed): 4. will Google own the world? What would Channel 4 do about it?; 5. is there a contradiction between [collaborative?] open platform and spam?; 6. re: education, in era of mass collaboration, what’s the role of expertise in a new world order? [Ooh, excellent question for museums! But more from the point of view of them wondering what happens to their authority, especially if their collections/knowledge start to appear outside their walls.]

AD: Google ‘ferociously ambitious in terms of profit’, fiercely competitive. They should give more back to the UK considering how much they take out. Qu to TBL re Google, TBL did not bite but said, ‘tremendous success; Google used science, clustering algorithms, looked at the web as a system’.
CL re qu 5 – the web works best through norms and social interactions, not rules. Have to be careful with assumption that can regulate behaviour -> ‘norm based behaviour’. [But how does that work with anti-social individuals?]
TBL re qu 6: e.g. MIT Courseware – experts put their teaching materials on the web. Different people have different levels of expertise [but how are those experts recognised in their expert context? Technology, norms/links, a mixture?]. More choice in how you connect – doesn’t have to be local. Being an expert [sounds exhausting!] – connect, learn, disseminate – huge task.

Questions from the floor: 7. ISPs as villains, what can they do about it?; 9. why can’t the web be designed to use existing social groups? [I think, I was still recovering from asking a question] TBL re qu 7 and ISPs ‘give me non-discriminatory access and don’t sell my clickstream’. [Hoorah!]

So the middle question  (Question 8) was me. It should have been something like ‘if there’s a tension between the top-down projects that don’t work, and simple protocols like HTML that do, and if the requirements of the ‘Semantic Web’ are top-down (and hard), how do we get away from the idea that the semantic web is difficult to just have the semantic web?’* but it came out much more messily than that as ‘the semantic web as proposed is a top-down system, but the reason the web worked was that it was simple, easy to participate, so how does that work, how do we get the semantic web?’ and his response started “Who told you SW is top down?”. It was a leading question so it’s my fault, but the answer was worth asking a possibly stupid/leading question. His full answer [about two minutes at 20’20” minutes in on the Q&A video] was: ‘Who on earth told you the semantic web was a top-down designed system? It’s not. It is totally bottom-out. In fact the really magic thing about it is that it’s middle-out as well. If you imagine lots of different data systems which talk different languages, it’s a bit like imagine them as a quilt of those things sewn together at the edges. At the bottom level, you can design one afternoon a little data system which uses terms and particular concepts which only you use, and connect to nobody else. And then, in a very bottom-up way, start meeting more and more people who’ll start to use those terms, and start negotiating with people, going to, heaven forbid, standards bodies and committees to push, to try to get other people to use those terms. You can take an existing set of terms, like the concepts when you download a bank statement, you’ll find things like the financial institution and transaction and amount have pretty much been defined by the banks, you can take those and use those as semantic web terms on the net. And if you want to, you can do that at the very top level because you might decide that it’s worth everybody having exactly the same URI for the concept of latitude, for the number you get out of the GPS, and you can join the W3C interest group which has gotten together people who believe in that, and you’ve got the URI, [people] went to a lot of trouble to make something which is global. The world works like that plug of stuff in the sink, it’s a way of putting together lots and lots of different communities at different levels, only some of them, a few of them are global. The global communities are hard work to make. Lots and lots and lots of them are local, those are very easy to make. Lots of important benefits are in the middle. The semantic web is the first technology that’s designed with an understanding of that’s how the world is, the world is a scale-free, fractal if you like, system. And that’s why it’s all going to work.’

[So I was asking ‘how do we get to the semantic web’ in the museum sector – we can do this. Put a dataset out there, make connections to the organisation next to you (or get your users to by gathering enough anonymised data on how they link items through searching and browsing). Then make another connection, and another. We could work at the sector (national or international) level too (stable permanent global identifiers would be a good start) but start with the connections. “Small pieces loosely joined” -> “small ontologies, loosely joined”. Can we make a manifesto from this?

There’s also a good answer in this article, Sir Tim Talks Up Linked Open Data Movement on internetnews.com.

“He urged attendees to look over their data, take inventory of it, and decide on which of the things you’d most likely get some use out of re-using it on the Web. Decide priorities, and benefits of that data reuse, and look for existing ontologies on the Web on how to use it, he continued, referring to the term that describes a common lexicon for describing and tagging data.”

Anyway, on with the show.]

[*Comment from 2015: in hindsight, my question speaks to the difficulties of getting involved in what appeared to be distant and top-down processes of ontology development, though it might not seem that distant to someone already working with W3C. And because museums are tricky, it turns out the first place to start is getting internal museum systems to talk to each other – if you can match people, places, objects and concepts across your archive, library and museum collections management systems, digital asset management system and web content management system, you’re in a much better position to match terms with other systems. That said, the Linking Museums meetups I organised in London and various other museum technology forums were really helpful.]

Questions from the floor: 10. do we have enough “bosses who don’t say no”?; 11. web to solve problems, social engineering [?]; 12. something on Rio meeting [didn’t get it all].

TBL re 10 – he can’t emulate other bosses but he tries to have very diverse teams, not clones of him/each other, committed, excited people and ‘give them spare time to do things they’re interested in’. So – give people spare time, and nurture the champions. They might be the people who seem a bit wacky [?] but nurture the ones who get it.

Qu 11 – conflicting demands and expectations of web. TBL – ‘try not to think of it as a thing’. It’s an infrastructure, connections between people, between us. So, are we asking too much of us, of humanity? Web is reflection of humanity, “don’t expect too little”.

TBL re qu 12 – internet governance is the Achilles heel of the web. No permission required except for domain name. A ‘good way to make things happen slowly is to get a bureaucracy to govern it’. Slowness, stability. Domain names should last for centuries – persistence is a really important part of the web.

CL re qu 11 – possibilities of self-governance, we ask too little of the web. Vision of open, collaborative web capable of being used by people to solve shared problems.

JK – (NESTA) don’t prescribe the outcome at the beginning, commitment to process of innovation.

Then Nesta hosted drinks, then we went to the pub and my lovely mate said “I can’t believe you trolled Tim Berners-Lee”. [I hope I didn’t really!]

Introducing modern bluestocking

[Update, May 2012: I’ve tweaked this entry so it makes a little more sense.  These other posts from around the same time help put it in context: Some ideas for location-linked cultural heritage projectsExposing the layers of history in cityscapes, and a more recent approach  ‘…and they all turn on their computers and say ‘yay!” (aka, ‘mapping for humanists’). I’m also including below some content rescued from the ning site, written by Joanna:

What do historian Catharine Macauley, scientist Ada Lovelace, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron have in common? All excelled in fields where women’s contributions were thought to be irrelevant. And they did so in ways that pushed the boundaries of those disciplines and created space for other women to succeed. And, sadly, much of their intellectual contribution and artistic intervention has been forgotten.

Inspired by the achievements and exploits of the original bluestockings, Modern Bluestockings aims to celebrate and record the accomplishments not just of women like Macauley, Lovelace and Cameron, but also of women today whose actions within their intellectual or professional fields are inspiring other women. We want to build up an interactive online resource that records these women’s stories. We want to create a feminist space where we can share, discuss, commemorate, and learn.

So if there is a woman whose writing has inspired your own, whose art has challenged the way you think about the world, or whose intellectual contribution you feel has gone unacknowledged for too long, do join us at http://modernbluestocking.ning.com/, and make sure that her story is recorded. You’ll find lots of suggestions and ideas there for sharing content, and plenty of willing participants ready to join the discussion about your favourite bluestocking.

And more explanation from modernbluestocking on freebase:

Celebrating the lives of intellectual women from history…

Wikipedia lists bluestocking as ‘an obsolete and disparaging term for an educated, intellectual woman’.  We’d prefer to celebrate intellectual women, often feminist in intent or action, who have pushed the boundaries in their discipline or field in a way that has created space for other women to succeed within those fields.

The original impetus was a discussion at the National Portrait Gallery in London held during the exhibition ‘Brilliant Women, 18th Century Bluestockings’ (http://www.npg.org.uk/live/wobrilliantwomen1.asp) where it was embarrassingly obvious that people couldn’t name young(ish) intellectual women they admired.  We need to find and celebrate the modern bluestockings.  Recording and celebrating the lives of women who’ve gone before us is another way of doing this.

However, at least one of the morals of this story is ‘don’t get excited about a project, then change jobs and start a part-time Masters degree.  On the other hand, my PhD proposal was shaped by the ideas expressed here, particularly the idea of mapping as a tool for public history by e.g using geo-located stories to place links to content in the physical location.

While my PhD has drifted away from early scientific women, I still read around the subject and occasionally adding names to modernbluestocking.freebase.com.  If someone’s not listed in Wikipedia it’s a lot harder to add them, but I’ve realised that if you want to make a difference to the representation of intellectual women, you need to put content where people look for information – i.e. Wikipedia.

And with the launch of Google’s Knowledge Graph, getting history articles into Wikipedia then into Freebase is even more important for the visibility of women’s history: “The Knowledge Graph is built using facts and schema from Freebase so everyone who has contributed to Freebase had a part in making this possible. …The Knowledge Graph is built using facts and schema from Freebase soeveryone who has contributed to Freebase had a part in making this possible. (Source: this post to the Freebase list).  I’d go so far as to say that if it’s worth writing a scholarly article on an intellectual woman, it’s worth re-using  your references to create or improve their Wikipedia entry.]

Anyway. On with the original post…]

I keep meaning to find the time to write a proper post explaining one of the projects I’m working on, but in the absence of time a copy and paste job and a link will have to do…

I’ve started a project called ‘modern bluestocking’ that’s about celebrating and commemorating intellectual women activists from the past and present while reclaiming and redefining the term ‘bluestocking’.  It was inspired by the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, ‘Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings’.  (See also the review, Not just a pretty face).

It will be a website of some sort, with a community of contributors and it’ll also incorporate links to other resources.

We’ve started talking about what it might contain and how it might work at modernbluestocking.ning.com (ning died, so it’s at modernbluestocking.freebase.com…)

Museum application (something to make for mashed museum day?): collect feminist histories, stories, artefacts, images, locations, etc; support the creation of new or synthesised content with content embedded and referenced from a variety of sources. Grab something, tag it, display them, share them; comment, integrate, annotate others. Create a collection to inspire, record, commemorate, and build on.
What, who, how should this website look? Join and help us figure it out.

Why modernbluestocking? Because knowing where you’ve come from helps you know where you’re going.

Sources could include online exhibition materials from the NPG (tricky interface to pull records from).  How can this be a geek/socially friendly project and still get stuff done?  Run a Modernbluestocking, community and museum hack day app to get stuff built and data collated?  Have list of names, portraits, objects for query. Build a collection of links to existing content on other sites? Role models and heroes from current life or history. Where is relatedness stored? ‘Significance’ -thorny issue? Personal stories cf other more mainstream content?  Is it like a museum made up of loan objects with new interpretation? How much is attribution of the person who added the link required? Login v not? Vandalism? How do deal with changing location or format of resources? Local copies or links? Eg images. Local don’t impact bandwidth, but don’t count as visits on originating site. Remote resources might disappear – moved, permissions changed, format change, taken offline, etc, or be replaced with different content. Examine the sources, look at their format, how they could be linked to, how stable they appear to be, whether it’s possible to contact the publisher…

Could also be interesting to make explicit, transparent, the processes of validation and canonisation.

How to build a web application in four days

There’s been a bit of buzz around ‘How To Build A Web App in Four Days For $10,000‘. Not everything is applicable to the kinds of projects I’d be involved in, but I really liked these points:
  • The best boost you can give you or your team is to provide the time to be creative.
  • You’ll come back to your current projects with a new perspective and renewed energy.
  • It will push your team to learn new skills.
  • Simplify the site and app as much as possible. Try launching with just ‘Home’, ‘Help’ and ‘About’.
  • Make sure to build on a great framework
  • Be technologically agnostic. If your developers are saying it should be built in a certain language and framework and they have solid reasons, trust them and move on.
  • Coordinate how your designers and developers are going to work together.
  • Get your ‘Creation Environment’ setup correctly. [See the original post for details]

“The coolest thing to be done with your data will be thought of by someone else”

I discovered this ace quote, “the coolest thing to be done with your data will be thought of by someone else”, on JISC’s Common Repository Interfaces Group (CRIG) site, via the The Repository Challenge. The CRIG was created to “help identify problem spaces in the repository landscape and suggest innovative solutions. The CRIG consists of a core group of technical, policy and development staff with repository interface expertise. It encourages anyone to join who is dedicated and passionate about surfacing scholarly content on the web.”

Read ‘repository or federated search’ for ‘repository’ (or think of a federated search as a pseudo-repository) and ‘scholarly’ for ‘cultural heritage’ content, and it sounds like an awful lot of fun.

It’s also the sentiment behind the UK Government’s Show Us a Better Way, the Mashed Museum days and a whole bunch of similar projects.

A sort of private joy? User-generated content and museums

I came across this lovely perspective on the content visitors create with museums:

We didn’t start out asking people to leave their work, but it always happened. Now, we build it into the consideration of the activities that will be offered in the space. It isn’t really like the formal artist-displaying-work model that is in evidence throughout the museum…the work is typically anonymous and individual pieces aren’t highlighted.

When you walk into the space during the last month or so of an exhibition you experience the visitor-created artwork as a single, room-sized installation first, and only later do you focus on individual pieces. I think it is closer in some ways to the urge behind street art…the sort of private joy to be had from making something great and then leaving it behind for others to discover. I sometimes see visitors coming back to find something that they left behind a month or two before, not to reclaim it, just to see where it is now.

From the post ‘Show your work‘ at the Indianapolis Museum of Art Blog.

It’s talking about work created during physical visits to a museum rather than virtual visits but I think I noticed it because there’s been a spurt of discussion about user-generated content and visitor participation on museum websites on the MCG mailing list following a workshop at the London Museums Hub on ‘Understanding collections use and online access across the London Hub’.

A study presented at the event found an apparent lack of interest from museum website visitors in user-generated content, but in discussion at the event it appeared that the findings might have been different if the questions had been asked differently (with examples of some possible outcomes from UGC, perhaps ‘would you like museum collections to be more discoverable because other visitors had tagged them with everyday words you’d use’ rather than ‘would you like opportunities to comment or upload content’), or if the focus groups hadn’t been recruited from people who were physically visiting a museum and who were therefore fairly traditional museum-goers.

This lead to some interesting discussion about the differing reactions to the idea of opinions from other visitors versus real-life stories from other visitors; and of the idea that sometimes the value in user-created content lives with the person who contributes rather than those who read their contributions lately. This last idea was also raised at the User-generated content session at Museums and the Web in Montreal, my notes are here. I think the role of authority and trust and the influence of the context (type of museum or collection, user goal) need to be teased out into a more sophisticated model for analysing user-generated content in the cultural heritage sector.

There’s a lot of research into user-generated content, participation and social software going on in the UK at the moment, it’d be great if there was somewhere that results, and ideally the raw data too, could be shared. Perhaps the MCG site?

What would you create with public (UK) information?

Show Us a Better Way want to know, and if your idea is good they might give you £20,000 to develop it to the next level.

Do you think that better use of public information could improve health, education, justice or society at large?

The UK Government wants to hear your ideas for new products that could improve the way public information is communicated.

Importantly, you don’t need to be a geek:

You don’t have to have any technical knowledge, nor any money, just a good idea, and 5 minutes spare to enter the competition.

And they’ve made “gigabytes of new or previously invisible public information” available for the project, including health, crime and education data (but no personal information).

If you are bored…

…you could go and read some of the blogs listed in the ComputerWeekly.com IT Blog Awards 08.

If you like this blog, you could vote for it in the Programming and technical blogs category, but given how good some of the other blogs are, I certainly don’t expect you to!

On the other hand, if you’ve really got time to be bored, maybe you could figure out the best way for a one-programmer (i.e. me*) project to store and publish layers of user-generated content on top of data drawn from APIs. KTHXBAI!

* More about that project soon when I report on the mashed museum day – I’d love other programmers to join me.