Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and prominent researcher Nigel Shadbolt will lead a new British Institute for Web Science with $45 million in government backing. The announcement was not without its critics, but the Institute could have a world-wide impact.

The two men collaborated in helping build the excellent data.gov.uk and will now expand upon that work. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said of the move: "We are determined to go further in breaking down the walled garden of Government...This Institute will help place the UK at the cutting edge of research on the Semantic Web and other emerging web and internet technologies."

Understanding the Web of Data

Berners-Lee said two years ago last month that all the pieces were in place to build the semantic web, a paradigm based on giving structured meaning to and clear links between otherwise unstructured content floating around the web. Many people believe that a web with semantic structure will be the same type of boon to innovation that common standards like HTML have been.

Berners-Lee famously described his vision of the semantic web like this:

I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web - the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A 'Semantic Web', which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The 'intelligent agents' people have touted for ages will finally materialize.

Today's announcement came along government calls to build super-fast broadband to every home in the UK. Prime Minister Brown claimed that such a development could foster economic development and as many as 250,000 new jobs.

As writer Tom Foremski pointed out this morning about the Web Science Institute, however "internet technologies have resulted in fewer jobs created than have been lost -- which is the way of all disruptive technologies."

Making the Vision Real is Hard, Too

Super-fast broadband to every home is a much easier thing to sell to the public than a future-web of structured, machine-readable data. After years of expectations, the semantic web remains in search of its clearly comprehensible killer-app. Earlier this month, semantic social bookmarking service Twine quietly slid into obscurity and was bought up by news recommendation service Evri. Twine was said to be possibly "the first mainstream semantic web app" two years ago. Founder Nova Spivak raised half as much money for Twine's parent company Radar Networks ($24m) as Berners-Lee's entire new institute is receiving. Twine faltered under poor usability and the leadership of Spivak, considered to be both one of the smartest people in the internet industry and a caustic egotist.

Thus is the dilemma for this supposed next stage of the web. Andrew Orlowski tears into today's announcement in The Register, calling it "a confluence of two groups of people with a shared interest in bureaucracy." Orlowski says the Web of Data is a fraud as well: "Of course, most web data is personal communication that happens to have been recorded. Most of the rest is spam, generated by robots, or cut-and-paste material 'curated' by the unemployed or poor graduates - another form of spam, really."

That's a funny critique but the truth is probably somewhere in between the superlatives and the condemnation. Critics like Orlowski have already grown jaded about the world-changing impact of the last iteration of the web (easy social publishing) and underestimate the platform potential of this next iteration.

"I've always been sceptical of the need for a 'new discipline.' [Web Science]," says leading semantic web consultant Paul Miller.

"A significant tranche of funding such as that announced by the Prime Minister this morning will be helpful in tackling some of the issues (both hard and soft) that still remain as we push more and more data out into the public sphere. I hope and expect that Nigel, Tim and others will devote at least as much attention to issues of trust, provenance, licensing etc as to the details of angle brackets, triples and ontologies."

Miller did a podcast interview with Shadbolt for the UK's largest semantic web company Talis, here.

For an in-depth explanation of Berners-Lee's perspective, see the two-part interview ReadWriteWeb founding Editor Richard MacManus did with him last year. MacManus has said that Berners-Lee's vision of a read/write, two-way web, was a key inspiration behind the founding of the publication you're reading now.

We wish the Institute for Web Science the best of luck in delivering on its rich promise.