Linking to the Future
As long as the web’s basic principles are upheld, its ongoing evolution is not in the hands of any one person or organization—neither mine nor anyone else’s. If we can preserve the principles, the Web promises some fantastic future capabilities.
For example, the latest version of HTML, called HTML5, is not just a markup language but a computing platform that will make Web apps even more powerful than they are now. The proliferation of smartphones will make the Web even more central to our lives. Wireless access will be a particular boon to developing countries, where many people do not have connectivity by wire or cable but do have it wirelessly. Much more needs to be done, of course, including accessibility for people with disabilities and devising pages that work well on all screens, from huge 3-D displays that cover a wall to wristwatch-size windows.
A great example of future promise, which leverages the strengths of all the principles, is linked data. Today’s Web is quite effective at helping people publish and discover documents, but our computer programs cannot read or manipulate the actual data within those documents. As this problem is solved, the Web will become much more useful, because data about nearly every aspect of our lives are being created at an astonishing rate. Locked within all these data is knowledge about how to cure diseases, foster business value and govern our world more effectively.
Scientists are actually at the forefront of some of the largest efforts to put linked data on the Web. Researchers, for example, are realizing that in many cases no single lab or online data repository is sufficient to discover new drugs. The information necessary to understand the complex interactions between diseases, biological processes in the human body, and the vast array of chemical agents is spread across the world in a myriad of databases, spreadsheets and documents.
One success relates to drug discovery to combat Alzheimer’s disease. A number of corporate and government research labs dropped their usual refusal to open their data and created the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. They posted a massive amount of patient information and brain scans as linked data, which they have dipped into many times to advance their research. In a demonstration I witnessed, a scientist asked the question, “What proteins are involved in signal transduction and are related to pyramidal neurons?”* When put into Google, the question got 233,000 hits—and not one single answer. Put into the linked databases world, however, it returned a small number of specific proteins that have those properties.
The investment and finance sectors can benefit from linked data, too. Profit is generated, in large part, from finding patterns in an increasingly diverse set of information sources. Data are all over our personal lives as well. When you go onto your social-networking site and indicate that a newcomer is your friend, that establishes a relationship. And that relationship is data.
Linked data raise certain issues that we will have to confront. For example, new data-integration capabilities could pose privacy challenges that are hardly addressed by today’s privacy laws. We should examine legal, cultural and technical options that will preserve privacy without stifling beneficial data-sharing capabilities.
Now is an exciting time. Web developers, companies, governments and citizens should work together openly and cooperatively, as we have done thus far, to preserve the Web’s fundamental principles, as well as those of the Internet, ensuring that the technological protocols and social conventions we set up respect basic human values. The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.
*Clarification (2/17/11): This sentence as written creates the impression that the demonstration was linked to the Alzheimer's Initiative. Rather, it refers to a separate undertaking and should read: In a different project, which I saw demonstrated, researchers at the University of Amsterdam asked the question, "What proteins are involved in signal transduction and are related to pyramidal neurons?"