Interview: Wendy Hall on what web science could mean for businesses

Wendy Hall, one of the first computer scientists to investigate hypermedia and multimedia, will be a driving force behind a new institute created to study the internet.

Wendy Hall was one of the first computer scientists to investigate hypermedia and multimedia, and her influence on the business world looks set to continue as she becomes one of the driving forces behind a new institute created to study the internet.

The Institute of Web Science has just received £30m of government funding, announced by Gordon Brown during his recent speech on the importance of the digital economy.

Hall is not leading the project - Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt are - but she will be closely involved. She is a professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, teaching and shaping post-graduate courses in web science. And she is a director of the Web Science Trust (formerly the Web Science Research Initiative), which promotes research into web development and enables collaboration between web science bodies across the world.

At around four years old, web science is a relatively new discipline, but it is growing fast as governments continue to recognise the value the digital economy will bring to developed countries in the coming decades.

"We decided that you could not go anywhere to study or predict what impact the next generation of technology was going to have on society. And we also cannot predict what people will do with the technology. It is a circular thing," says Hall.

A changing and all-encompassing discipline

Web science is interdisciplinary, with economics, law, sociology and philosophy all playing a role alongside the technical element. It aims to study the potential impact of the web, especially as it starts to evolve into the semantic web with a new generation of services and businesses.

The semantic web will see the internet become the world's database, as well as its document depository and social networking space. It will allow machines to trawl through datasets and make connections that are impossible at the moment. What is unusual about this move to a "linked" or data web is that it is governments which are pushing it forward, Hall says.

Obama's US administration launched its data.gov site shortly after he became president, and the UK government followed with Tim Berners Lee's data.gov.uk site.

"It is very interesting because the development of the first version of the web was led by enthusiasts," Hall says. "Universities were the first adopters, then businesses, then public sectors. This time around, of course there are enthusiasts doing linked data mash-ups, but the public sector is leading the way. Local councils will pick it up, the White House is picking it up, and interestingly the UK public sector is leading at the moment."

Keeping up with developments

Why are these developments important for business? Hall says the first version of the web not only changed the way people work and do business, but overturned the business models for sectors including publishing and the music industry. The next version could do something similar, and businesses need to keep on top of developments, says Hall.

These advances hold opportunities as well as threats. The data released on the web can be used to provide new services, and new companies will spring up to help companies and individuals understand it and get connected. "It is about research, but also about quickly getting that out into the wider world, so new businesses are spawned in this area."

Semantic web advances

The semantic web is still in its infancy. Hall says a good indication of the type of services it will enable is an application called Asbometer, which combines geographical data with information on anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) to provide a service that shows how many people have an Asbo in a particular area.

"This is why we started web science. We do not know how the web will continue to change things. You are putting data out there, machines can read data in a way they cannot read documents. They can understand it, and they can do things with it," she says.

Hall gives the example of finding out how to take a train from Edinburgh, Scotland, to Lisbon, Portugal. At the moment you would need to search for all the different train companies, study their different timetables, and match it all up yourself. With the semantic web, if companies upload all the information as data, developers can build applications that fish out the information from the timetables and provide you with a route.

"You will be able to have integrated timetables in ways we have never thought of before," she says. "Or imagine a world where all the universities put data about their professors, what they teach, what they research, and what projects they do on the web of data. It would enable the development of apps that answer the question, 'Where can I study nanotechnology in Europe?' You will not just get a list of universities where nanotechnology appears in their prospectus, but an answer to the question."

More advanced applications might be able to identify best places to study a subject (as long as you quantify what you mean by 'best'), while government health, transport and education data will open up the opportunity to discover things like bicycle accident black spots and correlations between certain environmental factors and high levels of a disease.

Skills for the future

If you are young or enthusiastic, or both, the best way to keep an eye on what will happen in the web of linked data is to look into the skills you will need to take advantage of it. Employers cannot find people with the skills they want, so it is fairly certain we will be lacking in this cutting-edge area, says Hall.

Part of the remit of the Institute of Web Science will be training, and Hall says the UK still suffers from a lack of entrants to the digital and technical sectors. "We do not have enough skills. It is a very exciting world and if anyone has an inclination leaning that way, they should jump on the bandwagon now."

And for those who do not want to study it, companies like Hall's - Seme4 - are already springing up to help show businesses the way.

There are plenty of issues to tackle, but opportunities in the digital economy will be there for the taking in coming years, she says. "Companies that are innovating in this area in the UK can become global companies. We have to be leading the world in something, and this will be a good one to be leading in."

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