‘Set data free’ – Tim Berners Lee

The founder of the World Wide Web declares data should be open by default..visualised

As a co-founder of the global Open Data Institute in London, UK, Professor Sir Tim Berners Lee champions the cause of ‘opening the books’ to show spending by governments and big corporations. The UK government backs the initiative with a grant of £10 million from the Technology Strategy Board over the next five years. Presenting his ideas at the ODI’s first summit, Sir Tim stressed that the latest visualisation tools allow all citizens to understand complex datasets at a glance.


The event, at the Museum of London, was a showcase for hands-on number-crunching by citizens on statistics that can change their lives for better or for worse. One example was the London Fire Service project. Data pictured above shows the number of emergency calls and false alarms to the Service across Greater London. The ODI team applied this data to the Mayor of London’s current plans to close ten fire stations. They also had a new dataset – potentially a game-changer. It came from a collaboration with Telefonica the mobile phone company, which provided details of mobile phone users’ movements across the working week. This footfall data was harvested from  the GPS positions of customers’ smartphones with O2 or GiffGaff SIM cards. The Telefonica stats showed, for example, that commuters swell the population of central London during the day. So although fewer people live there, the potential need for a  neighbourhood fire station is just as great as out in the suburbs – if not more so.


Mapped against the Mayor’s actual planned closures, the ODI’s illustration of the effect on response Nigel Shadbolt argues that it gives a more realistic outcome. What’s more – it allows the people who will be affected by the fire station closures to ‘get their hands on’ the data and manipulate it to discover how their own locality will be affected. Response times vary widely – from four to six and a half minutes – and in many emergencies, every second counts.  The study has been given added impetus as members of the Fire Brigades Union are striking in protest at the raising of their retirement age, and it is the season for large bonfires, fireworks and candles as Londoners celebrate Guy Fawkes Night and Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.


Speaking on  the PassWord with Peter Warren radio show on Resonance 104.4FM  Professor Sir Tim Berners Lee set out his vision for the future of the Web that he created back in 1991 at the CERN physics laboratory in Geneva,Switzerland ‘It was always intended that data should be free’ he said. ‘The World Wide Web, and the Internet that preceded it, were designed to make it easy to share information. We should work towards data that’s open by default.‘ Sir Tim insisted that openness need not conflict with the individual’s right to privacy – but said the right to anonymity should not be universal.

Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt

Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt


His co-founder Sir Nigel Shadbolt cites healthcare as another example of data transparency leading to better use of taxpayers’ money in the National Health Service. Startup company Mastodon C – an ODI member company – has analysed and visualised the effect on NHS spending if doctors prescribed the generic version of statins (a widely-used drug that  controls cholesterol levels) instead of the more expensive branded pills produced by large pharmaceutical companies. The result: using generic drugs would save £27 million per month – more than £200 million a year.


Another ODI project lets you compare your risk of killer diseases with people in other parts of the UK. For example, if you live in Suffolk that county has the fifth lowest risk of death from lung disease out if 150 local authorities. Blackpool – despite being noted for fresh air and fun – has the highest risk and Wokingham the lowest. Overall the dataset demonstrates that the worst place to live in England is Manchester, where the risk of heart disease makes premature death (before age 75)  more likely than anywhere else. The visualisations posted at also factor-in social deprivation so that it is possible to assess how wealth improves health.


The passion for open data shared by Shadbolt and Berners Lee is infectious. Prime Minister David Cameron has caught it and is trying to get openness to ‘go viral’ by hosting a global gathering of  37 government representatives from around the world in London, coinciding with the Open Data Institute summit. In his address, the PM praised open data as ‘the disinfectant of sunlight’ and urged transparency for all. This is a shift in attitude compared with the previous government which lost the last general election largely because the scandal of MPs falsely claiming expenses. The scale of the  bogus claims was revealed by journalists using leaked stolen data, and right-to-know campaigner Heather Brooke – a contributor at the ODI summit. Several MPs and peers were jailed for fiddling their expenses and the whole system is now open to public scrutiny. You can check what an MP is claiming here


This fiscal transparency is one of the five commitments agreed by governments meeting in London. The others aim to boost integrity in public life and show where the world’s natural resources are – including oil, gas and the precious metals used in technology manufacture. ‘Empowering citizens’ and ‘stimulating business’ are also on the list. The idea is that companies, such as the ODI’s own startups in it small business incubator, will use data to build apps and services that exploit new trends and niche markets emerging from the stats.