An Audience with the Prime Minister and Britain’s Digital Future aka BBDF

London, King’s Cross, The Hub. Friday last I (David F. Flanders) received an email from Her Majesty’s Office of the Public Sector inviting me to attend an event at 7.30am on a Monday morning (ugh – a lovely morning though) called “Building Britain’s Digital Future” event. I thought it would have something to do with the jiscEXPO (LinkedData) programme we currently have a Call out for, but I had no idea it would be this significant! Upon arriving I realised it must be some announcement given the camera crews and so I assumed we be in for some announcements about money. I was not disappointed as the following money related “initiatives” were announced by none other than the Prime Minister himself:

The Money of a Digital Future:Spending Money:

  • “On Wednesday the Chancellor will set out more detailed plans…totalling, overall, £20 billion.”
  • “Martha Lane Fox…[will] become the UK’s digital champion and help us establish in the cabinet office… a new digital public services unit.”
  • “£30m to support the creation of a new institute, the institute of web science – based here in Britain and working with government and British business to realise the social and economic benefits of advances in the web.”
  • “We have committed to save £5 billion per year in running costs and dispose of £20 billion surplus property over the next decade. To achieve this we will look to create a number of specialist government held property vehicles run on commercial lines.”

Saving Money:

  • “Pricewaterhousecoopers has estimated that the Government can save £900 million a year just by bringing those who don’t have access to the Internet online so that they can carry out transactions with public services more quickly and efficiently.”
  • “£11 billion of savings by driving up operational efficiency, much of it enabled by the increased transparency and reduced costs made available by new technology.”
  • “The Government is committed to achieving £4bn of savings from back office functions by 2012-13. To drive this ambitious programme forward, we intend to establish a number of business service companies that will handle the routine back office functions of Whitehall departments.”
  • “I believe that a similar approach can also be used to drive down the Government’s property costs. Significant efficiency improvements have been made over recent years and overall costs are now £740 million a year lower in real terms than in 2003.”

“My” Money:

  • “That is why we have chosen to raise a small levy on each household phone line – 50p per month, about the price of a pint of milk – to help fund a partnership with the private sector for a superfast broadband network right across Britain.”
  • “Imagine if you had no access to the best deals on the virtual high street – that can save you on average £560 a year by shopping and paying bills online.”
  • “We know that for every transaction with a public service that is done online rather than over the telephone we can save around £3.30 in administration and staffing costs.”
  • “And using the internet rather than filling in paper forms or writing letters can typically save £12 each time.”
  • “All public service contracts over £20 thousand pounds will be available on a single, free, easy-to-use online portal, and the data will be available free of charge for others to re-use.”

I’m focusing on the numbers here as I think it is worth listening to the Prime Minister’s considerable experience in economics. And indeed it is next Wednesday budget that will be the real story as we see how the overall “£20 billion” will be broken up and spent.The Politics of a Digital Future:

“And more than a quarter of our jobs – 7 million – are already in information, communications and technology related roles – a higher proportion than in France, Germany or America.”

So from a political point of view there is no doubt that the “ICT worker vote” is a significant one for all parties, with Brown’s speech and the Conservative “Technology Manifesto” there is no denying it is a vote worth winning. Personally, I think it is a good thing to have the politicians responding to “us 7 million” who care about having the largest library in the world in every home with the click of a button. So the more of this top-down political support we can gain the better. But what are the technologies and who knows how to wield these technologies to achieve the digital future of tomorrow?The Technology of a Digital Future: As for the technology, the Prime Minister is relying on two of the best (and even the inventor) of the Web: Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee to advise on the technical aspects. Coincidentally, I was sitting directly within eye-line of the PM with the glass teleprompter in between the two of us as he read off his speech. It was interesting to experience the way the PM expressed and read some of the technical points: what things he was generally exited about and… (unfortunately the digital picture wasn’t as good as being there!):

“Underpinning the digital transformation that we are likely to see over the coming decade is the creation of the next generation of the web – what is called the semantic web, or the web of linked data. This next generation web is a simple concept…”

But is “linked data” a “simple concept”?  Or rather what will it take to implement linked data so that it is a simple concept for everyone to understand and gain value from?  Can it be delivered to the masses in such a way that it is meaningful, worthwhile and saves money?!   Now that “linked data” has the political support it will be exciting to see what we can actually accomplish via our jiscEXPO projects as they implement linked data for real.While the engagement of politicians is welcome, the need to focus in on the pragmatics of the work is also essential at this stage, I’ve been coming more to the realisation myself that linkeddata is really just “the web done right”.For me those pragmatics were alluded to throughout the speech in terms of the roles of people who would significantly shape our digital future.  The key stakeholders in this space were identified: small businesses, front-line public sector organisations, digitally deprived, healthcare, however there was a new stakeholder group at the forefront – the Web developer! Accordingly, the biggest idea to seep into the political agenda (from my PoV) was the four times that the PM mentioned “developers”! Including, independent and small company developers who have stated to have an influence via their working code prototypes (all five politicians in attendance had a chuckle when talking about how a useful tool for citizens was created over a couple of pizzas):

“And independent developers are using the information we’ve published for innovative new websites and mobile phone applications such as ‘asborometer’ – built by one person in just five days. It finds your position using GPS and tells you how many people have been served with an asbo in that area. When it launched l
ast month it was the number one free application in the iTunes store after a reported 80,000 downloads in two days.”

I feel confident that developers as a community are now inspiring ideas at the highest level with their code.  And indeed the first sentence of the speech was a question as to “who” and what “kind” of future we want to achieve:

“As we emerge from recession, we face fundamental questions about the kind of Britain we want to build for the future; and about who will lead us there…”

I would put forward that a significant part of the team for “who will lead us there” is going to be the developer, and indeed the Prime Minister himself has invited developers to take part in this conversation, “we will invite universities and private sector web developers and companies to join this collaborative project”. Indeed I walked away from the speech very positive as it feels like developers are finally starting to be recognised widely for the significant skills and vision they can provide via their code: skills to build the tools that will help a vast number of citizens; and, visions (apps) of the future that inspire our leaders into building a digital future!

10 thoughts on “An Audience with the Prime Minister and Britain’s Digital Future aka BBDF

  1. John S. Erickson, Ph.D.

    “Cheers!” David for this interesting in-person account!

    The idea of a head-of-state talking about a technology best practice such as #linkeddata is at first exciting, then in retrospect a bit… um… weird. But it’s all for the good in the end!

  2. Kingsley Idehen

    Every little bit of communication helps.

    Linked Data is a game changing tweak within the existing Web infrastructure. We already know how the Web has changed everything.

    The fact that governments are now looking to transparency via Open, Structured, and InterLinked Data is basically a game changing recipe for society and economies.

    Remember, we got into the current economic mess on the back of data silo aided opacity.

    Government’s globally are going to respond to the Gordon Brown, and the constructive competition that emerges from this will simply benefit us all!!

    The people’s data doesn’t belong in walled gardens.

    We will remember this point in time post data driven economic recovery.

    The era of the “citizen data analyst” is nigh!

    To grok the statement above, simply rewind to 2000 and the see how the “citizen journalist” has changed the landscape of politics etc..

    Kingsley

  3. dfflanders

    Coincidentally a little discussion was started today by Paul Walk around a phrase I borrowed from Ed Summers and used in the above post: “Linked data is the Web done right”. I’d actually meant this as a bucket of cold water to all the hype around linkeddata these days. My meaning was that linkeddata is already the way the Web works right now! The four rules that Tim Berner’s Lee proposed in 2006 was when we started to walk down the path of linkeddata, and I think we’ve been slowly (on the whole) adopting the linkeddata approach, see steps to achieving linkeddata here (of which 4 of the 6 steps to achieving linkedata have been achieved and IS the current good parts of the Web): http://www.flickr.com/photos/dff-jisc/4456504101/

  4. Dan Brickley

    @dfflanders – absolutely nothing at all wrong with saying “linked data is just a Webby approach to data”. That’s why we like it!

    In 2006, TimBL wrote re FOAF,
    http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/LinkedData.html
    “This linking system was very successful, forming a growing social network, and dominating, in 2006, the linked data available on the web.”

    …and this LinkedData note proposed some tweaks to the FOAF linking model, emphasising that we should be less cautious in assigning URIs to people, since it makes data merging easier.

    Since some of us have been running around since 1999 or so saying this, the difference is one of emphasis and critical mass rather than design –

    http://www.slideshare.net/danbri/understanding-rdf-the-resource-description-framework-in-context-1999-307554

    “RDF model: one simple idea… (the same idea that underpins the Web) “ The most fundamental specification of Web architecture, while one of the simpler, is that of the Universal Resource Identifier, or URI. The principle that anything, absolutely anything, ‘on the Web’ should identified distinctly is core.” (Tim Berners-Lee) RDF aims to build a Web of overlapping metadata vocabularies We use URIs to define metadata vocabularies We build ‘graphs’ using these vocabularies to say things…”

    What’s different today is not the technology, but the fact that we have got tons of data out there in the real public Web, and a growing community that cares about using common identification strategies to cross-reference our datasets. RDF has always been a Web-centric approach to data sharing; in the early years of ‘Semantic Web’ work, however, too much emphasis on logic and inference obscured this message. Linked Data got us back on track…

    The ‘Linked Data’ slogan helped crystalise this emphasis, and re-orient Semantic Web thinking towards data, just when it was in danger of over-focussing on the logic / inference and ontological aspects.

  5. Andy Powell

    @dfflanders Hmmm… I’m looking at your diagram at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dff-jisc/4456504101/

    The point of contention here is (your?) step 5. Agreed? That is what really takes us into the Linked Data space. So it is the likelihood of step 5 becoming a useful reality that is the issue here – how much it will cost, how much benefit it brings, how much buy-in it can get, and so on.

    That said, for me, it is your step 1 (modelling the data) that is the hardest part. That’s because modelling the data for the human-readable web and for the machine-readable web are very different in importance and impact. The implied distance between your step 1 and step 5 hides a very important dependence between the two IMHO.

    If you are implying that step 1 is already “done right”, then I disagree.

  6. dfflanders

    Yep step 5 (expose your database/spreadsheet available as RDF with known vocabs) is the big question we are all waiting to see answered (and hopefully UK HEIs will have a better understanding of that after jiscEXPO projects have run their course?).

    And yes, step 1 is the fundamental question, and is (IMHO) being done right for the most part right now (I agree with Paul in this sense), Occam’s razor? Though I don’t think it is a significant change for developers while modelling data to decide to use predicates/columnHeaders instead of minting their own names (arguablly it makes it easier by declaring their meaning via a disambiquous URI)? Of course I have only played with a CRM system and modelling basic projects where there are easily used vocabs (DOAP, FOAF, DC, etc). It is the more complex statistics data vocabs that I am still wondering about re modelling stages (trying to model our JISC budgets is no cake walk, especially for future political change). Hope that makes sense.

    Much appreciated for feedback though.

  7. dfflanders

    @tommyh has rightly informed me that it was Sir TBL who originally coined the phrase that “linkeddata is the web done right”. Though it was Ed Summer’s that made me understand that phrase in terms of the six steps he has laid out that I have copid and put into said pretty continuum. 🙂

  8. Andy Powell

    I think the ‘hard’ part about step 1 (in the context of step 5, i.e. Linked Data) is getting people to model stuff in the same way – or, at least, in consistent enough ways that the resulting RDF is useful to other people you don’t know about.

    Anyone can model a book – the trick is getting at least two people to model it in roughly the same way! Then scale up to the whole world.

    Note: I’m not saying ‘impossible’… but I am saying ‘hard’ – and it’s a hardness that I think is often overlooked in LD-related discussions.

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