Web Science Perspective: Open Data

By Peter West • 12th March 2013 14:23

The World Wide Web is the largest information system that has ever existed in the history of humanity. Distributed across the world, the Web is used by over two billion individuals and contains vastly more information than all of the world’s libraries combined. As the Web grows, it is changing society. Humans are becoming more dependant on it, prompting a number of crucial questions into, for example, how it is affecting the global economy – many individual’s jobs depend on it – and how the Web should be governed – deciding areas of jurisdiction is not a simple task. Furthermore, with the recent surge of open data released by governments, there has become an urgent need for effective ways to convey government data to the public. There is a clear need for research in these areas to help answer these crucial questions.

Until recently, academic interest in the Web has primarily focused on its technical aspects. However, in order to help answer questions relating to Web in society, there needs to be a better understanding of how it is impacting humanity. Web Science aims to do this by combining the study of the technical aspects of the Web with other disciplines, such as Law, Economics and Sociology. This multidisciplinary approach is important to gaining an understanding into why the Web is used in the way it is and its role in society. It allows the limitations of the Web to be identified so that it can be developed to become more suitable for specialist areas, and will encourage its growth while settling societal issues relating to, for example, law and economy.

In recent years, strong pressure has been placed on governments to increase transparency so that the general population can better understand how governments operate. Governments have responded by releasing data about public services in the form of open data – data which may be used and distributed by anyone at no cost. Since 2010, the UK government has released over 9,000 datasets as open data on their website, data.gov.uk, including data on healthcare, taxes, censuses and pollution. However, this rush to release public data has led to a number of problems. Firstly, the data format may be inconsistent between datasets, leading to confusion and difficulty in using the data. Secondly, data may be difficult to understand, perhaps due to the format of the data or the nature of the subject. These issues may be leading to a divide in society between those who can understand the data and those who can’t. The ‘elite’ few that are able to understand government data would clearly have an advantage over those who can’t.

Web Science’s interdisciplinary approach to researching the Web offers a way in which we can better understand data from different fields. This can help us interpret and present the vast quantities of datasets that are being made available in an effective way, preventing this social divide. Understanding how humans interact with computers is crucial to presenting data, such that users may read it and interact with it in an intuitive way. By ensuring that this data is accessible to everyone, we can be confident that future governments will be motivated to continue releasing open data.