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TED2009

Tim Berners-Lee: The next web

February 5, 2009

20 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. For his next project, he's building a web for open, linked data that could do for numbers what the Web did for words, pictures, video: unlock our data and reframe the way we use it together.

Tim Berners-Lee - Inventor
Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. He leads the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), overseeing the Web's standards and development. Full bio

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Time flies.
00:18
It's actually almost 20 years ago
00:20
when I wanted to reframe the way we use information,
00:22
the way we work together: I invented the World Wide Web.
00:26
Now, 20 years on, at TED,
00:29
I want to ask your help in a new reframing.
00:32
So going back to 1989,
00:37
I wrote a memo suggesting the global hypertext system.
00:41
Nobody really did anything with it, pretty much.
00:44
But 18 months later -- this is how innovation happens --
00:47
18 months later, my boss said I could do it on the side,
00:51
as a sort of a play project,
00:55
kick the tires of a new computer we'd got.
00:57
And so he gave me the time to code it up.
00:59
So I basically roughed out what HTML should look like:
01:02
hypertext protocol, HTTP;
01:07
the idea of URLs, these names for things
01:10
which started with HTTP.
01:13
I wrote the code and put it out there.
01:15
Why did I do it?
01:17
Well, it was basically frustration.
01:19
I was frustrated -- I was working as a software engineer
01:21
in this huge, very exciting lab,
01:25
lots of people coming from all over the world.
01:27
They brought all sorts of different computers with them.
01:29
They had all sorts of different data formats,
01:32
all sorts, all kinds of documentation systems.
01:35
So that, in all that diversity,
01:37
if I wanted to figure out how to build something
01:40
out of a bit of this and a bit of this,
01:42
everything I looked into, I had to connect to some new machine,
01:44
I had to learn to run some new program,
01:48
I would find the information I wanted in some new data format.
01:50
And these were all incompatible.
01:55
It was just very frustrating.
01:57
The frustration was all this unlocked potential.
01:59
In fact, on all these discs there were documents.
02:01
So if you just imagined them all
02:04
being part of some big, virtual documentation system in the sky,
02:07
say on the Internet,
02:12
then life would be so much easier.
02:14
Well, once you've had an idea like that it kind of gets under your skin
02:16
and even if people don't read your memo --
02:20
actually he did, it was found after he died, his copy.
02:22
He had written, "Vague, but exciting," in pencil, in the corner.
02:25
(Laughter)
02:28
But in general it was difficult -- it was really difficult to explain
02:30
what the web was like.
02:34
It's difficult to explain to people now that it was difficult then.
02:36
But then -- OK, when TED started, there was no web
02:38
so things like "click" didn't have the same meaning.
02:41
I can show somebody a piece of hypertext,
02:44
a page which has got links,
02:46
and we click on the link and bing -- there'll be another hypertext page.
02:48
Not impressive.
02:52
You know, we've seen that -- we've got things on hypertext on CD-ROMs.
02:54
What was difficult was to get them to imagine:
02:57
so, imagine that that link could have gone
03:00
to virtually any document you could imagine.
03:04
Alright, that is the leap that was very difficult for people to make.
03:07
Well, some people did.
03:11
So yeah, it was difficult to explain, but there was a grassroots movement.
03:13
And that is what has made it most fun.
03:17
That has been the most exciting thing,
03:21
not the technology, not the things people have done with it,
03:23
but actually the community, the spirit of all these people
03:25
getting together, sending the emails.
03:27
That's what it was like then.
03:29
Do you know what? It's funny, but right now it's kind of like that again.
03:31
I asked everybody, more or less, to put their documents --
03:34
I said, "Could you put your documents on this web thing?"
03:36
And you did.
03:39
Thanks.
03:42
It's been a blast, hasn't it?
03:43
I mean, it has been quite interesting
03:45
because we've found out that the things that happen with the web
03:47
really sort of blow us away.
03:49
They're much more than we'd originally imagined
03:51
when we put together the little, initial website
03:53
that we started off with.
03:55
Now, I want you to put your data on the web.
03:57
Turns out that there is still huge unlocked potential.
04:00
There is still a huge frustration
04:04
that people have because we haven't got data on the web as data.
04:06
What do you mean, "data"? What's the difference -- documents, data?
04:10
Well, documents you read, OK?
04:12
More or less, you read them, you can follow links from them, and that's it.
04:15
Data -- you can do all kinds of stuff with a computer.
04:18
Who was here or has otherwise seen Hans Rosling's talk?
04:20
One of the great -- yes a lot of people have seen it --
04:26
one of the great TED Talks.
04:30
Hans put up this presentation
04:32
in which he showed, for various different countries, in various different colors --
04:34
he showed income levels on one axis
04:39
and he showed infant mortality, and he shot this thing animated through time.
04:42
So, he'd taken this data and made a presentation
04:45
which just shattered a lot of myths that people had
04:49
about the economics in the developing world.
04:52
He put up a slide a little bit like this.
04:56
It had underground all the data
04:58
OK, data is brown and boxy and boring,
05:00
and that's how we think of it, isn't it?
05:03
Because data you can't naturally use by itself
05:05
But in fact, data drives a huge amount of what happens in our lives
05:08
and it happens because somebody takes that data and does something with it.
05:12
In this case, Hans had put the data together
05:15
he had found from all kinds of United Nations websites and things.
05:17
He had put it together,
05:22
combined it into something more interesting than the original pieces
05:24
and then he'd put it into this software,
05:27
which I think his son developed, originally,
05:32
and produces this wonderful presentation.
05:34
And Hans made a point
05:37
of saying, "Look, it's really important to have a lot of data."
05:39
And I was happy to see that at the party last night
05:43
that he was still saying, very forcibly, "It's really important to have a lot of data."
05:46
So I want us now to think about
05:50
not just two pieces of data being connected, or six like he did,
05:52
but I want to think about a world where everybody has put data on the web
05:56
and so virtually everything you can imagine is on the web
06:01
and then calling that linked data.
06:03
The technology is linked data, and it's extremely simple.
06:05
If you want to put something on the web there are three rules:
06:07
first thing is that those HTTP names --
06:11
those things that start with "http:" --
06:14
we're using them not just for documents now,
06:16
we're using them for things that the documents are about.
06:20
We're using them for people, we're using them for places,
06:22
we're using them for your products, we're using them for events.
06:24
All kinds of conceptual things, they have names now that start with HTTP.
06:28
Second rule, if I take one of these HTTP names and I look it up
06:32
and I do the web thing with it and I fetch the data
06:37
using the HTTP protocol from the web,
06:39
I will get back some data in a standard format
06:41
which is kind of useful data that somebody might like to know
06:44
about that thing, about that event.
06:49
Who's at the event? Whatever it is about that person,
06:51
where they were born, things like that.
06:53
So the second rule is I get important information back.
06:55
Third rule is that when I get back that information
06:57
it's not just got somebody's height and weight and when they were born,
07:01
it's got relationships.
07:04
Data is relationships.
07:06
Interestingly, data is relationships.
07:08
This person was born in Berlin; Berlin is in Germany.
07:10
And when it has relationships, whenever it expresses a relationship
07:14
then the other thing that it's related to
07:17
is given one of those names that starts HTTP.
07:20
So, I can go ahead and look that thing up.
07:24
So I look up a person -- I can look up then the city where they were born; then
07:26
I can look up the region it's in, and the town it's in,
07:29
and the population of it, and so on.
07:32
So I can browse this stuff.
07:35
So that's it, really.
07:37
That is linked data.
07:39
I wrote an article entitled "Linked Data" a couple of years ago
07:41
and soon after that, things started to happen.
07:44
The idea of linked data is that we get lots and lots and lots
07:48
of these boxes that Hans had,
07:52
and we get lots and lots and lots of things sprouting.
07:54
It's not just a whole lot of other plants.
07:56
It's not just a root supplying a plant,
07:59
but for each of those plants, whatever it is --
08:01
a presentation, an analysis, somebody's looking for patterns in the data --
08:04
they get to look at all the data
08:07
and they get it connected together,
08:10
and the really important thing about data
08:12
is the more things you have to connect together, the more powerful it is.
08:14
So, linked data.
08:16
The meme went out there.
08:18
And, pretty soon Chris Bizer at the Freie Universitat in Berlin
08:20
who was one of the first people to put interesting things up,
08:24
he noticed that Wikipedia --
08:26
you know Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia
08:28
with lots and lots of interesting documents in it.
08:31
Well, in those documents, there are little squares, little boxes.
08:33
And in most information boxes, there's data.
08:37
So he wrote a program to take the data, extract it from Wikipedia,
08:40
and put it into a blob of linked data
08:44
on the web, which he called dbpedia.
08:46
Dbpedia is represented by the blue blob in the middle of this slide
08:49
and if you actually go and look up Berlin,
08:53
you'll find that there are other blobs of data
08:55
which also have stuff about Berlin, and they're linked together.
08:57
So if you pull the data from dbpedia about Berlin,
09:00
you'll end up pulling up these other things as well.
09:03
And the exciting thing is it's starting to grow.
09:05
This is just the grassroots stuff again, OK?
09:08
Let's think about data for a bit.
09:10
Data comes in fact in lots and lots of different forms.
09:13
Think of the diversity of the web. It's a really important thing
09:16
that the web allows you to put all kinds of data up there.
09:19
So it is with data. I could talk about all kinds of data.
09:22
We could talk about government data, enterprise data is really important,
09:25
there's scientific data, there's personal data,
09:29
there's weather data, there's data about events,
09:32
there's data about talks, and there's news and there's all kinds of stuff.
09:34
I'm just going to mention a few of them
09:38
so that you get the idea of the diversity of it,
09:41
so that you also see how much unlocked potential.
09:43
Let's start with government data.
09:47
Barack Obama said in a speech,
09:49
that he -- American government data would be available on the Internet
09:51
in accessible formats.
09:56
And I hope that they will put it up as linked data.
09:58
That's important. Why is it important?
10:00
Not just for transparency, yeah transparency in government is important,
10:02
but that data -- this is the data from all the government departments
10:05
Think about how much of that data is about how life is lived in America.
10:08
It's actual useful. It's got value.
10:13
I can use it in my company.
10:15
I could use it as a kid to do my homework.
10:17
So we're talking about making the place, making the world run better
10:19
by making this data available.
10:22
In fact if you're responsible -- if you know about some data
10:24
in a government department, often you find that
10:28
these people, they're very tempted to keep it --
10:30
Hans calls it database hugging.
10:33
You hug your database, you don't want to let it go
10:36
until you've made a beautiful website for it.
10:38
Well, I'd like to suggest that rather --
10:40
yes, make a beautiful website,
10:42
who am I to say don't make a beautiful website?
10:44
Make a beautiful website, but first
10:46
give us the unadulterated data,
10:49
we want the data.
10:52
We want unadulterated data.
10:54
OK, we have to ask for raw data now.
10:56
And I'm going to ask you to practice that, OK?
10:59
Can you say "raw"?
11:01
Audience: Raw.
11:02
Tim Berners-Lee: Can you say "data"?
11:03
Audience: Data.
11:04
TBL: Can you say "now"?
11:05
Audience: Now!
11:06
TBL: Alright, "raw data now"!
11:07
Audience: Raw data now!
11:09
Practice that. It's important because you have no idea the number of excuses
11:11
people come up with to hang onto their data
11:15
and not give it to you, even though you've paid for it as a taxpayer.
11:17
And it's not just America. It's all over the world.
11:21
And it's not just governments, of course -- it's enterprises as well.
11:23
So I'm just going to mention a few other thoughts on data.
11:26
Here we are at TED, and all the time we are very conscious
11:29
of the huge challenges that human society has right now --
11:34
curing cancer, understanding the brain for Alzheimer's,
11:39
understanding the economy to make it a little bit more stable,
11:42
understanding how the world works.
11:45
The people who are going to solve those -- the scientists --
11:47
they have half-formed ideas in their head,
11:49
they try to communicate those over the web.
11:51
But a lot of the state of knowledge of the human race at the moment
11:54
is on databases, often sitting in their computers,
11:57
and actually, currently not shared.
12:00
In fact, I'll just go into one area --
12:03
if you're looking at Alzheimer's, for example,
12:06
drug discovery -- there is a whole lot of linked data which is just coming out
12:08
because scientists in that field realize
12:11
this is a great way of getting out of those silos,
12:13
because they had their genomics data in one database
12:16
in one building, and they had their protein data in another.
12:20
Now, they are sticking it onto -- linked data --
12:23
and now they can ask the sort of question, that you probably wouldn't ask,
12:26
I wouldn't ask -- they would.
12:29
What proteins are involved in signal transduction
12:31
and also related to pyramidal neurons?
12:33
Well, you take that mouthful and you put it into Google.
12:35
Of course, there's no page on the web which has answered that question
12:38
because nobody has asked that question before.
12:41
You get 223,000 hits --
12:43
no results you can use.
12:45
You ask the linked data -- which they've now put together --
12:47
32 hits, each of which is a protein which has those properties
12:50
and you can look at.
12:54
The power of being able to ask those questions, as a scientist --
12:56
questions which actually bridge across different disciplines --
12:59
is really a complete sea change.
13:01
It's very very important.
13:04
Scientists are totally stymied at the moment --
13:06
the power of the data that other scientists have collected is locked up
13:08
and we need to get it unlocked so we can tackle those huge problems.
13:13
Now if I go on like this, you'll think that all the data comes from huge institutions
13:16
and has nothing to do with you.
13:20
But, that's not true.
13:23
In fact, data is about our lives.
13:25
You just -- you log on to your social networking site,
13:27
your favorite one, you say, "This is my friend."
13:30
Bing! Relationship. Data.
13:32
You say, "This photograph, it's about -- it depicts this person. "
13:35
Bing! That's data. Data, data, data.
13:38
Every time you do things on the social networking site,
13:41
the social networking site is taking data and using it -- re-purposing it --
13:43
and using it to make other people's lives more interesting on the site.
13:47
But, when you go to another linked data site --
13:51
and let's say this is one about travel,
13:53
and you say, "I want to send this photo to all the people in that group,"
13:56
you can't get over the walls.
13:59
The Economist wrote an article about it, and lots of people have blogged about it --
14:01
tremendous frustration.
14:03
The way to break down the silos is to get inter-operability
14:04
between social networking sites.
14:06
We need to do that with linked data.
14:08
One last type of data I'll talk about, maybe it's the most exciting.
14:10
Before I came down here, I looked it up on OpenStreetMap
14:13
The OpenStreetMap's a map, but it's also a Wiki.
14:16
Zoom in and that square thing is a theater -- which we're in right now --
14:18
The Terrace Theater. It didn't have a name on it.
14:21
So I could go into edit mode, I could select the theater,
14:23
I could add down at the bottom the name, and I could save it back.
14:25
And now if you go back to the OpenStreetMap. org,
14:30
and you find this place, you will find that The Terrace Theater has got a name.
14:33
I did that. Me!
14:36
I did that to the map. I just did that!
14:38
I put that up on there. Hey, you know what?
14:40
If I -- that street map is all about everybody doing their bit
14:42
and it creates an incredible resource
14:45
because everybody else does theirs.
14:48
And that is what linked data is all about.
14:51
It's about people doing their bit
14:54
to produce a little bit, and it all connecting.
14:57
That's how linked data works.
15:00
You do your bit. Everybody else does theirs.
15:03
You may not have lots of data which you have yourself to put on there
15:07
but you know to demand it.
15:11
And we've practiced that.
15:14
So, linked data -- it's huge.
15:16
I've only told you a very small number of things
15:20
There are data in every aspect of our lives,
15:23
every aspect of work and pleasure,
15:25
and it's not just about the number of places where data comes,
15:28
it's about connecting it together.
15:31
And when you connect data together, you get power
15:34
in a way that doesn't happen just with the web, with documents.
15:37
You get this really huge power out of it.
15:40
So, we're at the stage now
15:44
where we have to do this -- the people who think it's a great idea.
15:47
And all the people -- and I think there's a lot of people at TED who do things because --
15:51
even though there's not an immediate return on the investment
15:54
because it will only really pay off when everybody else has done it --
15:56
they'll do it because they're the sort of person who just does things
15:59
which would be good if everybody else did them.
16:03
OK, so it's called linked data.
16:06
I want you to make it.
16:08
I want you to demand it.
16:10
And I think it's an idea worth spreading.
16:12
Thanks.
16:14
(Applause)
16:15

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Tim Berners-Lee - Inventor
Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. He leads the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), overseeing the Web's standards and development.

Why you should listen

In the 1980s, scientists at CERN were asking themselves how massive, complex, collaborative projects -- like the fledgling LHC -- could be orchestrated and tracked. Tim Berners-Lee, then a contractor, answered by inventing the World Wide Web. This global system of hypertext documents, linked through the Internet, brought about a massive cultural shift ushered in by the new tech and content it made possible: AOL, eBay, Wikipedia, TED.com...

Berners-Lee is now director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which maintains standards for the Web and continues to refine its design. Recently he has envisioned a "Semantic Web" -- an evolved version of the same system that recognizes the meaning of the information it carries. He's the 3Com Founders Professor of Engineering in the School of Engineering with a joint appointment in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL) at the MIT, where he also heads the Decentralized Information Group (DIG). He is also a Professor in the Electronics and Computer Science Department at the University of Southampton, UK.

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