Berners-Lee: open data mustn't be lost in cost-cutting

Sir Tim Berners-Lee warns governments against being lazy about open data

Nicole Kobie
18 Apr 2011

The inventor of the web has said governments shouldn’t use austerity measures as an excuse to shut down data-sharing projects.

Speaking at the opening of a World Wide Web consortium office in Oxford, Sir Tim Berners-Lee said releasing data into the open isn’t any more expensive than keeping it locked up.

Government open-data sites in the US are at risk of being shut down, as the millions of dollars required to keep them is being cut due to budget pressures.

Sir Tim said such sites had a good chance of survival despite the tough economic times. “I think there will a be a lot of pressure in the US to keep it running,” he said.

However, he warned some may see budget cuts as an excuse to be “lazy” – despite online storage not costing governments more than private, secured storage.

The argument that it’s more expensive to make something visible is a weak one

“What would be a shame is if people used the clampdown on money as an excuse to be lazy and to not be transparent,” he said. “If you think about it, in today’s world, if you were going to store something, it’s pretty much as easy to store something in public as private.”

“If you store it in public, you don’t have to worry about security, so it’s actually more expensive to store it somewhere private,” he added. “The argument that it’s more expensive to make something visible is a weak one, and I hope we don’t see them [governments] using it.”

He praised the UK’s efforts in spending transparency. “The US doesn’t have the transparency in spending that the UK has. I hope the US will go there, once they’ve gone there, I don’t think the public will let them retreat from that. When you’re cutting back, transparency about what you’re cutting back is as important, or more important, than transparency in your spending.”

Five-star data

Berners-Lee called for governments to follow his five-star rating for data.

Under that, one star would be a scanned photocopy, two stars would make it machine readable so it wouldn’t have to be retyped, while five-star data would also be linked and have context to related data to help users understand it.

However, he noted that governments shouldn’t be left to do all the work themselves. While they should strive to ensure data that’s important to many is five-star, he said the media and volunteers should take raw data and improve it, giving it context when governments can’t or won’t.

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