The web of data vs the web of pages

Gavin Starks
4 min readMay 13, 2020


Let’s build a federated data infrastructure
to meet the needs of the many, not of the few.

Sun setting behind Tower Bridge. Photo: Gavin Starks CC-BY
Sun setting behind Tower Bridge. Photo: Gavin Starks. License: CC-NC-BY

This is a post about culture, not technology.

The web [of pages] is the result of a lot of non-repeatable events: it ‘got built’ faster than industry and government could react, an engineering solution that outpaced controls. People published and connected billions of copyright pages in a way that everyone could access, use and share — whether or not they had ‘permission’.

Search engines scan everything to create ‘derivative’ data that enables search: one copyright trade-off is that search adds so much value that businesses ‘accepted’ there was more value in being discoverable than not. As the media industry (music, TV, film) tried to catch up they tried DRM (Digital Rights Management) — but lost. We’ve seen this model rinse and repeat over decades.

‘a network where bits know their rights?’

What does this mean for business data?

Businesses are rightly reluctant to put their confidential, intellectual property-laden, highly valuable data on to a ‘web of data’—they shouldn’t make it all open.

But there are two things they should do.

  1. Publish open data that describes what they have so we can find it (aka ‘metadata’).
  2. Make it available as shared data in return for some form of value exchange.

These are technically easy to do — the web of data needs to address the non-technical, business-critical issues: use-cases, service level agreements, business models, rights, consent, redress, liability, regulation, and costs that businesses and government engage with.

Perhaps one description of the web of data should be

‘a network where bits know their rights’

Done well we can create diverse marketplaces, expand value-chains, enable multiple business models and increase the diversity of our economy.

Tim’s vision for the web of data, and the work I helped lead at the Open Data Institute, has shaped many principles, practices and processes for open data. Now, in a similar way, Open Banking has provided a quantum leap in shared data by addressing social and economic contracts.

We are changing the way people think about data sharing — Open Banking, Open Finance (insurance, pensions, investments), Open Energy, Open Environment and Open Culture are all now emergent projects.

This cultural shift is from centralised thinking—governments and businesses love ‘portals’ because they fit with their institutional models—to federated thinking whereby everyone can hold their own value and choose to share it, in an environment that protects rights, reduces risks and enhances value.

We’re shifting from [supply-, demand-, value-]chains to [supply-, demand-, value-]networks: data increases in value the more it is connected.

I imagine many of my tech friends rolling their eyes at this point, but the impact of the web of data is only just becoming visible at a whole-of-system level. It’s as exciting as the web in the late 90s.

Icebreaker One is trying to help instrument this change to enable a web of data between science, policy, finance and engineering (assets and infrastructure).

A federated web of data is the only architecture that will enable the data, information and insights to flow to the people who need them, at web-scale, and address the systemic challenges we face.

Let’s build a federated data infrastructure
to meet the needs of the many, not of the few.

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