Openness as the Foundation for Global Change


What do you do after Inventing the Web? That's not a question most of us have to face, but it is for Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Heading up the World Wide Web Consortium to oversee the Web's development was a natural move, but valuable as its work has been, there's no denying that it has been sidelined somewhat by the rather more vigorous commercial Web activity that's taken place over the last decade.

Moreover, the kind of standards-setting that the W3C is mostly involved with is not exactly game-changing stuff – unlike the Web itself. So the recent announcement of the World Wide Web Foundation, also created by Sir Tim, has a certain logic to it.

Here's that new organisation's “vision”:

We envision a world where all people are empowered by the Web. Everyone — regardless of language, ability, location, gender, age or income — will be able to communicate and collaborate, create valued content, and access the information that they need to improve their lives and communities. The creativity of the billions of new Web users will be unleashed. The Web’s capabilities will multiply, and play an increasingly vital role in reducing poverty and conflict, improving healthcare and education, reversing global warming, spreading good governance and addressing all challenges, local and global.

We are far from seeing our vision through to its rightful conclusion, and serious challenge that stand in the way. The unique mission of the World Wide Web Foundation is to realize this vision through transformative programs which advance the Web technically by breaking down barriers and building capabilities, and which advance the Web socially, as a medium that empowers people to bring about positive change.

The continuity with Berners-Lee's earlier concerns about creating a read-write Web are evident, but there's a now an important extra dimension to do with major issues facing humanity: poverty, conflict, healthcare, education and global warming. These are obviously massively more challenging than simply defining standards for the Web, and are about applying the Web to solving major problems in the real world.

That's a hugely ambitious goal, and I was slightly sceptical about it when I spoke last week with Steve Bratt, Chief Executive Officer of the new Foundation, and previously CEO of the World Wide Web Consortium – like Berners-Lee he felt it was time to move on to even bigger challenges. The Foundation's budget is still quite small - $5 million over five years – which means that finding more funding is a major priority at the moment. But despite this, the Foundation has some innovative ideas about how to make that money go a long way. Inevitably, free software plays an important role.

For example, one of the key challenges that the Web Foundation wishes to address is the Content Gap:

Creation of locally-relevant content on the Web is impeded in many places, not by lack of the Internet, but by a lack of knowledge. Life-critical information and services are in limited supply, especially for those who need help the most.

Here's how it intends to tackle this:

The Web in Society Program is the Web Foundation’s first step toward filling the “content gap”, the Web Foundation works directly in the field to provide grass roots organizations, governments, NGOs and entrepreneurs with the knowledge, training and tools to share locally-relevant information more effectively. Our initial focus is to support projects that foster social and economic progress in developing countries, and within sectors such as agriculture, health care, education, institutional transparency, women’s issues and other topics of local and global relevance. Enabling content that is accessible using browsers and voice on mobile phones will be key, especially in developing countries where mobiles are the dominant communication device.

Those tools will be open source, Bratt told me. Open content, too, would be a natural choice for sharing materials, although the World Wide Web Foundation won't be forcing this on creators, who will be free to choose their own licences.

Another challenge is bridging the Technology Gap:

More than one billion people who read poorly, read only languages not well-supported on the Web, or have disabilities are inhibited from creating and consuming Web content because of the current state of technology and practice. In addition, the introduction of incompatible and proprietary technologies, uninformed policies, censorship and other challenges threaten the vision of the Web as a single, universal medium for the sharing of information for all people.

This, again, is an area where open source and open standards can play a key role:

The Web Standards Program is based on the knowledge that Web technology serves users as well as it does because the fundamental technologies that make it work are free to use, open for review and globally agreed.

In other words, openness lies at the heart of this work, and that's probably the most exciting thing for me about this whole venture, however modest its current scale: it is taking the ideas that lie behind open source and open standards, and applying them in real-life situations to make a real difference to people's lives, and that's hugely important. Let's hope that Tim Berners-Lee's latest project is ultimately as successful as his more famous one.

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