Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Tim Berners-Lee: Raw Data Now

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Gamelan is a Javanese musical form that involves complex, interlocking rhythmic patterns played on a series of gongs and bells. Gamelan X is something else entirely – a gamelan-inspired music collective that uses gongs, woodwinds, synthesizers and voice to create a complex, trance-like music drawing on “Indonesian, Balkan, African, Indian and American” influences. They open the afternoon at TED, performing with ArcheDream, a multi-media dance troupe who wear elaborate painted costumes that glow in blacklight. The costumed dancers are reminiscent of Circle du Soleil, though perhaps if the directors did a bit more acid; the music is quite amazing, swirling from clarinet-driven Balkan folk into atmospheric Javanese sounds.


Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, invites us to consider a new type of reframing. He wants us to reframe the web and unlock the data.

Bernerns-Lee tells us about his work developing the first web browser and server, and explains that his motivation was frustration. He was surrounded by brilliant scientists and engineers who were working on cool projects, all on different machines and using different formats. Building something out of this data required translating between different formats, figuring out how to unlock all this potential.

(Berners-Lee reminds us that his project was seen as fanciful at first. He wrote a memo to his boss introducing the idea, which was only found after his boss died. It had a single pencil annotation on it – “vague, but exciting”.)

While Berners-Lee is understandably proud of what the web has made possble, he’s frustated that “we haven’t got data on the web as data.” Huge amounts of data exist online, but not in ways that make it easy to use. Talks like Hans Rosling’s legendary TED talk are rooted in data. Using data from the World Bank and elsewhere, he shattered myths about economics in the developing world. But, Berners-Lee argues, is all underground.

He wants to bring this data above ground. The vision is a world of “linked data – a world where all the data is on the web”. His vision involves three basic principles:
- tagging data in a format similar to HTML (XML, we assume)
- getting worthwhile data when you fetch it
- getting relationships between the data

We need access to this data and to the relationships between it because it will allow new forms of scientific discovery. “The more things you have to connect together, he tells us, “the more powerful it is.” He references Chris Spitzer, who wrote a program to abstract data from wikipedia and organize it in terms of relationships via dbpedia. He points to OpenStreetMaps, a project that invites people to annotate and contribute to street maps.

These are examples of what we could do, Berners-Lee tells us, if we had more data available. If Obama holds true to his promise to open government data, not only will we have greater transparency, but we’ll have data students can use to do their homework, and opportunities for researchers to learn new things about how government works.

To solve major problems like curing cancer, altzheimer’s, financial systems or global warming, we need to share data – the temptation is to “hug your data, don’t let it go until you’ve made a beautiful site.” But Berners-Lee believes we need to let it go, to tear down proprietary barriers between social networking sites, to unlock government data. He leads us in a chant: “Raw data now”.


It’s the juxtapositions that make TED for me. Cindy Gallop takes the stage in thigh-high leather boots and announces, “I date younger men. And when I date younger men, I have sex with younger men. And when I have sex with younger men, I see the creeping implications of the accessibility of hardcore pornography.” Pornography gives young men unrealistic expectations not of what sex entails, she tells us, but of what partners want from sex. She’s not anti-porn – indeed, she’s a fan of hardcore porn – but wants people to distinguish between Real World and Porn World. So she’s launching Make Love Not Porn, a site designed to draw distinctions between the real world and the world of constructed fantasy.

One wonders what Gallop and Berners-Lee have to say to one another backstage.

3 Responses to “Tim Berners-Lee: Raw Data Now”

  1. phil klein says:

    It’s completely feasible to insist upon open data access for data whose collection is funded federally or by states, including academic and research data, at least in some fields or some kinds of projects (like cancer and medical research). Some Data (already a vast and increasing amount of data) is more valuable the more freely it’s shared. This issue should be farther along by now, yet much could be done quickly to make a powerful impact.

    Add’l examples to consider: NASA’s open policies on certain data, and some local governments have highly open data access.

    Open data access would be a completely sensible public works project — to rebuild our antiquated information infrastructure for current and future needs.

    THX for the most excellent blogging Ethan!

  2. You might also be interested to see Rufus Pollocks original post on this on the Open Knowledge Foundation blog [1] – which Tim Berners Lee cites as the origin of the Raw Data Now meme [2].

    [1] http://blog.okfn.org/2007/11/07/give-us-the-data-raw-and-give-it-to-us-now/

    [2] http://www.w3.org/2009/Talks/0204-ted-tbl/#(34)

  3. Now involuntarily the US government leaked data via Wikileaks. But in general in the future more and more data become accessible to everybody, not only from governments but corporations and other organizations. Still the trustworthiness of the sources is important to extract the right information and use it for the benefit of mankind.

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