Be a Web scientist

Tim Berners-Lee helped create the World Wide Web. Now, 15 years later, he’s trying to figure out how to fix it.

The launch last month of Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation seemed almost deliberately vague. The organization’s written mission is to advance one Web, which is free and open; to expand the Web’s capability and robustness; and to extend the Web’s benefit to all people around the world. The Foundation has already hit the ground running with US$5 million in seed money from a journalism non-profit group. All that’s missing are the details of how it will actually accomplish its ambitious mission. In an interview with IDG News Service, Berners-Lee suggested it’s the next generation of users who should be treating the Internet as a blank canvas and shaping the future of the Web. “If we can accomplish everything I can think of, we’ll have failed,” he added.

Let’s begin by looking at the three major areas of focus for the Web Foundation. According to its Web site, the Technology and Practice Program will “promote the development of technology and standards that foster creativity, collaboration, and communication.” To most people in the IT industry, this would seem to directly overlap with the work being done by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), another group with which Berners-Lee has been closely involved. Standards are already so slow to develop and achieve acceptance that it’s hard to see how adding another layer of bureaucracy will advance anything.

The Web for Society Program, meanwhile, will “ensure the Web is accessible and useful to people, including people with disabilities, from different cultures, and language and literacy skills that span the range of the Earth’s population.” To call this ambitious is an understatement, but it articulates a worthy vision for using technology in a socially responsible way. This area will probably require the most fleshing-out, as well as partnerships with major governments and like-minded non-profit organizations, in order to carry any weight within the NGO community.

Perhaps most intriguing, however, is Berners-Lee’s plans for a Web Science and Research Program. The goals here include efforts “to study and understand how the Web works in order to anticipate and ensure its future,” and “to spearhead thought leadership in Web research and to educate future Web Scientists.”

This is in part of the mission of many CIOs and IT managers.

Though they may not be thinking on a global scale, their mandate is increasingly centered on developing a better sense of what users want and what they will do online. This includes creating communities, enabling transactions and funneling information through the Web in useful ways. They may not think of themselves as “Web scientists” today, but perhaps the Web Foundation could start with this group and give them the tools and techniques they will need to foster more positive online experiences. Far from a science, managing today’s Web often seems more like an art form. And the results aren’t always pretty.

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