It’s easy to be cynical about big name external appointments to the government. After all, they’re an easy media hit to add a touch of glamour but often come to grief with the person involved achieving little.
However, the news that the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, is to become a government advisor on ‘public information delivery’ looks set to be one of the better ones. A successful veteran of working successfully with bureaucracy – and a multinational one at that – from his time at CERN, he is likely to bring to the role a better understanding than most of how to bring about change in government.
Moreover, he has some clear and strongly held beliefs to help steer him, keeping him away from those twin traps of drowning in detail or becoming a native of the system.
There are therefore good reasons to believe that his appointment will turn out to be a success, and if it is we will see this in more government data being made available cheaply, or for free, in useful formats and with minimal restrictions on its subsequent reuse.
Across the breadth of its operations, the state holds so much data that it is hard to imagine the full impact of a freeing up of its data. So take just one, very simple example. The Met Office has huge volumes of historic data on the weather patterns around the country – data which could be put to many users if it was freely and easily available. Imagine property sites that told you the typical weather for a property. Holiday information sites that let you know what the weather is likely to be like on your chosen dates. Educational sites that challenge people to forecast weather better than the experts. Clothing sites that fit their promotions to your location and the current weather. And a host of opportunities none of us have thought of as yet.
For that’s been the repeated experience of data being made more available: it feeds all sorts of innovations and creations. During that phase there is also often a commercial cost to those that move slowest, for either they get overtaken by other people’s innovation or they end up paying heavily for data or services that others are now sourcing for free.
So as Tim Berners-Lee tries to work his influence on government data, commercial operations should keep a close eye on the new business opportunities coming their way, the ability to use free data to supplement their services and the opportunity to cut costs.