Just Semantics: How Web 3.0 Can Make Digital Government a Reality

Technology Policy

Just Semantics: How Web 3.0 Can Make Digital Government a Reality

Paper
Posted on: 8th December 2021
Yusuf Sohoye
Technology and Public Policy 2021 Fellow

Governments today are facing a number of wicked problems, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and regional inequality. It is important that they are equipped with the right tools to tackle these issues as best they can, and new technologies could provide part of the solution. Web 3.0, and the semantic web that makes up a large part of it, could have a place in the future toolbox to help tackle the mission of governments and serve the needs of their citizens.

Web 3.0 and the semantic web is an ambitious project, bringing together a number of positive principles, including interoperability and privacy. The realities of its implementation may be more unclear, resulting in uneven timelines for its adoption. But the pursuit of a digital government compatible with the semantic web is a worthy one, and has the potential to make governments more adaptable, inform evidence-based policymaking and provide better-quality services for its citizens.

 

Digital Government Today

If you hold social media and big-tech accounts, signing into online services can be very easy using the “sign in with...” option. Suppose there is a news site you want to read but you are not registered. Not to worry: with one click you can sign up with one of your other accounts and have full access. Just as quickly, the site can get all the information it needs about you from the existing account you signed up with. This becomes even easier if the new online service you use is provided by a technology company you already have an account with, such as Google or YouTube.

This seamless process is helpful for online service providers as they can learn your tastes and preferences, inform their own product development and contact you about new updates. As a user you can get an account relatively quickly, consume whatever content you intended to, and won’t have to create an account when you return.

However, this frictionless user flow is not always seen when accessing government services. The registration process is much slower. There doesn’t seem to be a shared view of “you”, the user using the services. You are required to repeat a lot of information in registration forms. The UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) team identified this issue and are looking at ways to try to improve the user’s experience. One implication of this siloed, continued re-registration process is that the data becomes stale quite quickly. Because there is no linked data, it’s difficult to know where the most up-to-date information is.

This is one example of where siloed data causes problems, but this problem occurs in different forms across government. In building safety, for example, there are lots of different actors in the development and regulation of a building—all independently making changes to designs, documenting compliance decisions and updating progress status. With all this information being recorded in different software and different formats, it’s difficult to get one view of the building’s journey through the relevant processes.

These problems are born of silos of various kinds: information, process, organisational and geographic, among others. The World Wide Web has historically been seen as a destroyer of silos, allowing instant communication and collaboration, initially between researchers at CERN and soon across the world. As we have put more of our interactions on the internet, we are asking more of it than before. Whereas before we were digitising paper processes, we’re now designing processes that put digital first and utilising the advancements in other areas of computing and technology. Because of this, it has been argued that the internet could do more to meet the needs of today, and that the future of the web lies in Web 3.0.

 

The Semantic Web

Web 3.0 is a future vision of the next iteration of the web, and as such its definition and boundaries are not clearly defined. Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web) supposes that a large part of Web 3.0 will be the semantic web, an idea that was publicised by a 2001 article in Scientific American and a 2006 companion article. The idea was to make the web machine-readable; by connecting data across the web it could be understood both contextually and conceptually, and the authors of the 2001 article imagine it like this:

The entertainment system was belting out the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” when the phone rang. When Pete answered, his phone turned the sound down by sending a message to all the other local devices that had a volume control. His sister, Lucy, was on the line from the doctor’s office: “Mom needs to see a specialist and then has to have a series of physical therapy sessions. Biweekly or something. I’m going to have my agent set up the appointments.” Pete immediately agreed to share the chauffeuring. At the doctor’s office, Lucy instructed her Semantic Web agent through her handheld Web browser. The agent promptly retrieved the information about Mom’s prescribed treatment within a 20-mile radius of her home and with a rating of excellent or very good on trusted rating services. It then began trying to find a match between available appointment times (supplied by the agents of individual providers through their Web sites) and Pete’s and Lucy’s busy schedules.1 From “The Semantic Web”, by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Ora Lassila and James Hendler, Scientific American, May 2001.

If you think about our web today, it can be crudely explained as lots of documents with links to other documents. There are, of course, apps built on top of these documents, but the data stays bound to these documents. The semantic web promises to link the data, and the semantics that give it meaning, so that machines can exchange information without being explicitly engineered to talk to each other, just like the “Semantic Web Agent” in the article quoted above understood the relevant treatment data, and used it to search suitable physical therapy sessions.

As a user we may feel that some of the elements of the semantic web described are already familiar, such as Siri, or the single sign-on example mentioned above, where your name and email address can be shared with other sites. Cookies follow us round the web, giving advertising companies our preferences so that they serve us the best advertisement. But in this current iteration of the web, the data is held in highly centralised repositories, such as Google’s small businesses database, containing local physiotherapists. And that is where the reality departs from the original vision of the semantic web. As one article brilliantly points out, the pertinent part of the vision is in the brackets: (supplied by the agents of individual providers through their Web sites). This implies loss of control of personal data for the user and places a heavy reliance on the technology monopolies to make the web work in this user-friendly, seamless way.

 

What Can the Semantic Web Do for Digital Government?

Linked data on the semantic web has the potential not only to improve citizens’ experience of using government service, but also to enable better, data-informed decision-making across all levels of government.

The current frustrations of silos and the need for better linked data can be seen across government. The huge digital efforts involved in tracking, linking and updating the population's health records to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic would have benefited from a better, unified view of a citizen. Work to improve this data ecosystem is taking place with NHS Digital and NHSX. These efforts focus not only on improving the day-to-day activities of providing healthcare and allowing it to adapt to changing needs, but also on improving the data quality to allow use of AI and data analytics.

A similar need for linked data can be seen in the UK’s geospatial efforts. There are multiple ministries and local government departments actively managing and updating spatial data sets, from housing to transport to environment. These departments are concerned with different parts of the space we inhabit, and look for different features to measure and record. To some extent this is necessary—departments should have the flexibility and power to create their own tools to do the work they are responsible for. But in some cases there could be double counting, multiple registers and databases containing duplicate data (and duplicated efforts). Strategy set out by the Geospatial Commission recognises this and the role that linking different data sources together has in “unlocking the power of location data”. Actions have included opening up key data sets such as UPRNs and devising a best practice guide for linked data. Similarly, the National Data Strategy places emphasis on “data quality and technical barriers to data use and re-use across government”. To unlock the potential of linked data, the government aims to support standards, tools and approaches to enable better data quality and accessibility.

What digital government requires from the semantic web is similar to the broader computing community's needs:

1. Services more widely accessible;

2. Services more integrated within organisations; and

3. Information more “intelligent”.

Synergy between governments’ requirements and the aim of the semantic web provides a motivation to build a form of digital government compatible with Web 3.0. The following section evaluates the semantic web from three key perspectives when assessing new technologies in government. Any new change will be a confluence of political, technical and economic realities.

Political

A key double dividend of the semantic web has been highlighted: better user experience of digital government services for citizens as well as better-quality data for more evidence-based policymaking. This is a result of the semantic web enabling sharing of data, meaning, as a user, no need to keep re-entering your information. From the government’s perspective, cross-departmental services can be built more quickly. And it is possible to draw data from across departments to bring a multi-departmental view of a citizen (or group of citizens) to inform new policies. In the more mature form of a semantic web, like the one laid out in the 2001 article, the citizen can utilise a “semantic web agent” (read: AI) to carry out their tasks automatically. Moved house? Just tell the AI and all relevant information can be updated.

Another benefit of the semantic web in the original vision is the privacy-preserving nature of it. Because data is decentralised, you—the citizen—are able to have more control and say over your data. The current situation of the web is skewed towards data aggregators. While it may be palatable to hand over our personal data to friendly-seeming tech companies, if the same methods were employed in government the story may be different. Trust in government is a serious political question; but in order to receive government services, it shouldn’t matter either way. You should provide only the data you need for the service to be delivered, not allow them to collect data en masse “just in case”.

Technical

From a technical perspective certain elements are required before we build and utilise the semantic web. Consensus over ontologies (a standardised way in which we define things) and various standards must be reached, so we can all know what to expect. These could build on existing work including the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and Web Ontology Language (OWL).

There is also some thinking to be done in efforts to “decentralise” Web 3.0 and give control back to the users over what data they share. Berners-Lee has put forward the idea of using personal data “pods” which will be maintained by the user, and can move between different services—rather like moving social media platforms and taking your friend list with you, or moving doctors and taking your medical history with you.

There are more immediate software implementations governments can use to ensure they are compatible with a future semantic web, such as adopting microservice principles. Microservices are a modern iteration of Service-Oriented Architecture and focus on splitting software into small, well-defined, single responsibilities which are optimised for that service. Three key components of microservice architecture are that they have small bounded scope, are independently deployable and message-oriented for communicating. There are multiple benefits of these features, but the one most aligned with the semantic web is message-based communications. In a microservice architecture, software is built to reflect different business or government services, and to work in harmony it exchanges messages between the services. This reflects the vision of the semantic web, with AI agents and machines being able to communicate with each other without being explicitly programmed to do so. Governments implementing this design pattern will create software that is message-based, and will be able to use the standards and metadata that the semantic web will involve. It will allow government departments to continue their own operations and to customise their tools to serve their individual needs, while also benefiting and contributing to the network of linked data.

Other technical components of the semantic web that require attention include intelligent machines and trustless communication. Advancements in artificial intelligence and blockchain could be readily transferable for use on the semantic web.

Economic

A decentralised future using the semantic web will change many business models. Because the standard and format to store data will be open to all web users, in theory smaller providers should be able to function online without tying their success to companies with a huge internet presence. This is the same point laid out in the 2001 article quoted above, emphasising how individual businesses would have their own online presence.

This has consequences for how the government can procure software tools. At the moment, because of the nature of the web and the design patterns of software that appears around it, all tools follow a similar pattern: a data entry part (from citizen or government employee), a data store (maybe cloud) and dashboarding feature to show key metrics.

Software projects are often quite big: because new software can't talk to existing software, the scale needs to get bigger with each replacement, meaning bigger data stores and the need to create proprietary schema. These characteristics tend to favour the larger, more generalist companies. It's a cycle that repeats itself and the projects span several years with various add-ons, until another transformation effort is approved. Because the semantic web will both provide the data from elsewhere, and have a predefined format, less work is needed to build the manual data entry feature, and less effort goes into defining custom ontologies as there are already pre-existing formats. This could allow smaller, specialised companies to provide and maintain specific software services.

This whole move to decentralise the data storage of components could make building software and digital services cheaper. New software would be able to leverage existing ontologies and users will be able to provide their relevant information (maybe from their personal data pod?) when accessing this new service. Time can be saved on designing and building and storing data from form fields.

Additionally, adopting a microservice approach will mean smaller services, which will be cheaper and quicker to procure and build. They will also be easier to replace, meaning there doesn’t have to be a lengthy digital transformation scheme every time an update is needed, as a result of policy or software being outdated. This is because the services will be independent of each other, and only tied together through message exchange. Therefore you can swap an old service out for a new one, as long as it uses the same data formats and schemas to communicate with the wider system.

This will involve a change in procurement approach. Instead of large contracts spanning several years and covering whole departments, procurement will be smaller, shorter and cheaper. Specialised software should also mandate interoperability through APIs, understanding that data will be passed between systems, existing and future.

 

Conclusion

The future of the semantic web is uncertain. One commentator described it “as dead as last year’s roadkill”, but recent interest in blockchain, general ledger technologies and AI has invigorated imagination for what Web 3.0 could look like. Building the semantic web may not be high on the UK government’s agenda, but that doesn’t mean it can’t prepare to reap the rewards and start building digital infrastructure to be compatible with a more useful internet future.

While the ontologies and protocol standards are iterated and agreed upon, government departments and digital efforts could focus on implementing processes and cultures that ensure data is collected responsibly, ensuring quality and interoperability. Creating a more accessible data ecosystem of handling, storing and serving people’s data could enable better decision-making using data in the short term, and prepare the government for Web 3.0 in the longer term.

First stages could focus on improving communication (both process and software) between departments. Then, as ontology improvements from the semantic web community mature, we will need to define how these communications are structured, making them more machine interpretable, further increasing the opportunity for AI. Then we can start looking at “digital assistants” doing the burdensome heavy lifting of these tasks.

Efforts and the will are already evident; most direct is GDS using Tim Berners-Lee’s startup, Solid, to help with its national identity work. Solid is based on the concept of personal data pods that give users control over the data they share. The National Data Strategy and Geospatial Commission Strategy show interest in making government data more interoperable between departments. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the benefits of linking healthcare data and spurred work to continue through NHS Digital. Work from the Government Digital Service continues to build on the “Government as a Platform” concept and combines user research with the technical software work to make government services easier to access. Other programmes such as National Digital Twin draw on similar concepts, creating individual data objects, connected via standards.

Web 3.0 brings decentralisation to a very centralised Web 2.0. It has the opportunity to allow citizens to share important information in a safe and privacy-preserving way, while encouraging more engagement and offering the potential to provide quicker, customised service for each citizen. Better use of data across departments could enable more evidence-driven policymaking and allow better tracking of key government metrics. These benefits may be some time away as the semantic web is still maturing, but implementing the processes and tools to allow better sharing across government could bring tangible benefits in the nearer term. Achieving this by adopting microservices principles could also make a more agile digital government.

The aim is to create government services that are effective and timely, and utilising new tools is essential. Web 3.0 is a long way off, but the principles of storing data in consistent, readable ways, alongside the privacy elements, are all current government priorities. While there may not be any explicit preparations for Web 3.0 in government, parallels between current government digital efforts and Web 3.0 efforts bode well. Preparing for the arrival of the semantic web could provide immediate benefits distinct from the semantic web. There must be a continuing focus on the main aim: to build a digital government that can serve its citizens better.

Lead Image: TBI

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