A New Era of Transparency
By Bernadette Hyland, W3C co-chair Government Linked Data Working Group, CEO 3 Round Stones, Inc.
17-Oct-2011 – During the Linked Data Workshop being held in Warsaw Poland on October 20th, 2011, I’ll be giving a keynote and facilitating a half-day workshop organized by LOD2 and the W3C Government Linked Data Working Group. I’ll be joined by my colleagues Martin Kaltenböck and Thomas Turner from the Semantic Web Company to show how organizations are realizing the benefits of Linked Data. Also, Mr. Luca Martinelli from the European Commission, DG Information Society and Media, will discuss The Open Data Strategy of the European Commission.
Synopsis of W3C Government Linked Data Keynote
The following is a synopsis of my talk on the importance of publishing high quality (“5 star”)
Linked Data and why this is central to fulfilling the promise of Open Government in the 21st Century. My slides are available on Slideshare.
All governments have large data challenges. They have become even more challenging in this period of fiscal austerity. The use of Linked Data techniques allows governments to publish more, reuse more and combine more data for a fraction of the cost of older methods.
Governmental transparency is a hallmark of governments that are responsive to their people. Too often, we have seen data held closely in archives or published in ways that prohibit its context from being discovered. The publication of open government data using Linked Data techniques, used internationally, has the potential to allow the increase of governmental transparency in a cost-effective manner.
In the last couple of years, we are hearing how Open Government will transform how governments serve their citizens in the 21st Century. The question remains, how will that be achieved? Government leaders will use the Web to solicit input, inform decision making, and ultimately, to create a more transparent and accessible government. This is a very worthwhile goal. It is also a very ambitious goal.
I contend that Open Governments will not happen because senior executives speak at international conferences in support of it. Nor will any number of well meaning activists evangelizing the benefits of being open make Open Governments a reality. Rather like the Web itself, it will take a combination of top down and bottom up support from executive leaders, policy makers, civil servants, developers, activists and many, many volunteers to realize these worthwhile objectives.
Advocate and participate if you value something
It is critically important for us to advocate for what we believe in. There are people in powerful roles who disagree with the Web’s openness and frankly, the Web’s operation beyond the control of governments. China and Russia want the UN General Assembly to adopt an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security”. India, Brazil and South Africa have called for a “new global body” to control the Internet, according to The Economist, October 1st, 2011 (“In praise of chaos“).
A revolution in data sharing is underway
This revolution uses the latest in Web standards to publish structured data to the Web in an open, extensible and reusable way. Linked Data allows for the publication of open government information alongside information from non-governmental sources to make a database of the World Wide Web.
The World Wide Web Consortium’s Government Linked Data Working Group is chartered to provide standards and document best practices for the publication of governmental data. The group is part of the W3C’s eGovernment Activity and closely coordinates with the Semantic Web Activity.
In brief, “5 star” linked data as described by the Web’s founder, Tim Berners-Lee, says:
- Use URIs to identify things so that people can point to your data;
- Use HTTP URIs so people can look up that data;
- Provide useful information using the RDF family of standards (RDF*, SPARQL); and
- Link your data to other data on the Web to provide context.
What is high-value content?
Many governments organizations produce “high value data” but it is often locked up in proprietary formats and resides in information silos. In many cases, government personnel don’t even know how to get at government information to share it. Taxpayers have spent millions of dollars, if not billions, for government organizations to collect, curate and in some cases, even publish a portion of this data. Published data sets information on healthcare, scientific research, agriculture, environment, finance, census, Earth observation, regulatory compliance, to name but a few. While publishing something is absolutely better than no electronic publication, certain high value data sets can reach a far greater audience if published as high quality 5 star Linked Data.
What is the Government Linked Data Working Group doing?
Working in public view, the W3C Government Linked Data Working Group documenting the rapidly evolving best practices. We are publishing recommendations for creation and mechanisms to use high quality Linked Data. The working group commenced in June 2011 and will run through May 2013. This pragmatic, focused working group is comprised of 39 participants from 25 organizations worldwide. They are actively developing and deploying real world open data projects leveraging 5 star Linked Data. Several members are key contributors to important pieces of infrastructure and Open Source projects. We’re sharing our experiences with one another and with government policy makers and open data advocates via the W3C Web site, blogs, government forums, Meetups, conferences, workshops, and written works subject to the peer review process. We’ve released our first deliverable, a beta Community Directory, listing vendors and organizations deploying Linked Data projects for Government. Drafting of vocabulary recommendations and best practices are also on track per the charter schedule.
Why do international standards matter?
As stated during the recent 42nd International Standards Day in Brussels earlier this month, international standards provide interoperability which in turn create economies of scale and ensure that users can obtain equal service wherever they travel. So international standards benefit governments, consumers, manufacturers and service providers alike. Importantly, this accelerates the deployment of new products and services and encourages economic development.
International standards create confidence globally, “Indeed one of the key objectives of standardization is to provide this confidence, and encourage an environment of openness and transparency, where every stakeholder can contribute.” The W3C international standards frame our daily experience with the Web. The Web, in turn, defines commerce, social interaction, information flow and governance for the 2 billion people now using the Internet.
Who is publishing using Linked Data today?
Small and large commercial and government organizations, NGOs, non-profits, plus many universities are publishing and consuming the Linked Data family of standards. This includes household names such as Apple, Oracle, IBM, BBC, The New York Times, NASA, the United Nations, Volkswagen, Renault, the Governments of UK, US, Brazil, Australia, and many others.
To their credit, local, state and national governmental bodies have responded by publishing thousands of data sets on the Web. Some have been published using the Linked Data family of standards, but too often this data has been published as 1-3 star Linked Data. This means it has been published in proprietary formats, without context or descriptions, rendering the information often cryptic or impossible for people to access. And a server is really at a disadvantage, unable to discover much from a PDF or CSV file in most cases.
By contrast, high value data published as 5 star Linked Data can be read by both humans and computer servers. Web servers can and do read structured data well. Several of the major search engines have put significant industry weight behind RDFa and schema.org. The premise is that a shared markup vocabulary makes easier for webmasters to decide on a markup schema and get the maximum benefit for their efforts. Getting more well-structured data on the Web is a good thing.
Agencies who go to the effort of modeling and converting valuable data sets will ensure their data is authoritative. Our firm 3 Round Stones, Inc is working with government and commercial organizations, going to the effort of creating 5 star Linked Data because their data sets have a high degree of re-use potential. High quality data represented in open and extensible formats can readily combined with other data sets, it can be found thus drives more traffic.
I contend that more well-structured data readily accessible via the Web will provide powerful new insights and inform policies on some of our most pressing national and global issues. This approach will significantly reduce the amount spent on data preparation and publication, responding to what in the US are called Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and will add to the engine of economic growth in the 21st Century.
We’ve come a long way in just three years
Tim Berners-Lee first coined the term “Linked Data” in 2006. By 2008, several dozen of researchers and entrepreneurs led a Linked Data workshop during the WWW2008 Conference. The workshop was facilitated by Christian Bizer from Free University of Berlin, Tom Heath, Kingsley Idehen from Open Link Software, and Tim Berners-Lee led a workshop at the 17th WWW Conference in Beijing China. These and other semantic technology thought-leaders provided broad guidance on data publishers who were envisioning the Web of Data.
Since 2008, an increasingly growing number of heads of state have recognized the World Wide Web as a powerful mechanism to communicate positions, policies and a wide range of open government information. Hundreds of thousands of data sets were published, ranging from birthday party attendees through Earth Observation data.
Government funding and executive support
Clearly, executive support is critical for the widespread use within government organizations. Support needs to include senior approval, policies and budget for worthwhile initiatives. In the last year, the US Federal Government has slashed budgets, including the US e-Government initiative from $35 million to $8 million despite US CIO Vivek Kundra demonstrating that these programs had already saved taxpayers $3 billion over the last two years alone. During the Open Government Data Camp we’ll be learning how governments are supporting these initiatives. I look forward to hearing Mr. Luca Martinelli from the European Commission, DG Information Society and Media, discuss the Open Data Strategy of the European Commission which from what I’ve heard appears to be fairing better in terms of budget. I’ll report back in a subsequent blog post.
I was pleased to hear in last month (September 2011) that Presidents Barak Obama (USA) and Dilma Rousseff (Brazil) stood with other heads of state to endorse the principles of the Open Government Partnership and launch their governments’ Open Government National Plans during a meeting of the UN General Assembly. President Obama’s premise is, “open economies, open societies and open governments are becoming reality through worldwide leadership.”
In conclusion, we’re creating a virtuous circle
Clearly, the goals of Open Government are very ambitious — to transform how governments serve their citizens in the 21st Century by soliciting input to inform decision making, and ultimately, to create a more transparent and accessible government.
W3C members and those members of the public who participate in the W3C process are doing their part to publish recommendations and exemplars for successful deployments. People will be motivated to publish 5 star Linked Data when they see the value. I contend that policy makers, civil servants and the public will derive tremendous value from publishing and consuming valuable content.
We invite you to participate with the W3C in its efforts to pave the way to a better world, in which governmental data may be combined, reused and re-purposed for the good of all people.
Events such as the Open Government Data Camp 2011 which has registered delegates from over 40 countries from civic society, NGOs, and government organizations are an unstoppable force. These delegates are building consensus around open data principles and values; building community; actively sharing ideas on the future of open data; and creating the tools and applications to use and visualize well-structured data.
There are many revolutions occurring around the world. This one is about sharing information. I contend that in a budget-constrained global climate, publishing data on the Web using W3C recommendations is the mechanism to transform how governments serve citizens in the 21st Century. Through the use of international data exchange standards, best practices, and Open Source software, governments can and will be successful in revolutionizing the relationship between governments and the people they serve.