“Web 3.0” is an IT buzzword that’s appearing with greater frequency among the state and local government IT community. Explanations differ as to what it means in terms of implementation, but the overarching concept is “machine-to-machine” communication on the Internet.
This means that in a growing number of instances, software applications — not the human end-users — will evaluate the usefulness of Web page content, online data and sensor information. Where Web 2.0 was about users contributing data manually and interacting with one another regarding that data, Web 3.0 is focused on applications that search on behalf of users for data that’s likely to be of interest. For instance, imagine Person A reveals his favorite recording artists on his Facebook account. Person B becomes a Facebook friend of Person A and later listens to one of those recording artists on Internet radio website Pandora.com. Having combed Facebook, Pandora alerts Person B that Person A likes that recording artist. Instead of Person B wondering if such a commonality exists and seeking out the answer, Pandora searches the Web and notices the commonality on behalf of Person B.
If you think it’s becoming superfluous to distinguish between Web 2.0, Web 3.0 and whatever Web 4.0 ends up meaning, you’re not alone. The creators of the term “Web 2.0” didn’t intend to trigger this escalation of numbers, according to Jennifer Pahlka, executive director of Code for America, a nonprofit organization that places open source software programmers in city governments. Pahlka was part of the team at O’Reilly Media, a print and Web publishing company that formulated the Web 2.0 term in conjunction with its inaugural Web 2.0 Summit in 2004. The term was meant as a catch-all descriptor for the data explosion of “collective intelligence” that was transforming the way information was digested on the Internet.
“They weren’t intending to put us in a position where every couple of years we’re trying to decide what version we’re at and who gets to determine what it means,” Pahlka said.
She thinks a catch phrase mentality motivates people who are anxious for specifics to zero in on only certain technologies. Pahlka said many different developments within the Web’s collective intelligence are progressing simultaneously and deserved attention. The IT world loves jargon, however, which means “Web 3.0” probably isn’t going away. The next step, of course, is asking, what will these new machine-to-machine technologies mean for state and local governments?
Government lingers in our shadow from when it issues our birth certificate until it prints our death certificate. In between, we face obligations to a department of motor vehicles and the IRS, receive benefits from social services agencies and experience numerous other ties to government. Former Minnesota CIO Gopal Khanna sees Web 3.0 as a mechanism for governments to come in and out of citizens’ lives more fluidly. He envisions governments making available on the Web all of the services and data the public wants in machine-readable formats. This would enable citizen end-user applications — likeliest developed by the private sector — to comb that data for anything useful and deliver it to citizen end-users however they prefer receiving it. Such an evolution would be in contrast to current e-government services, which require constituents to hunt down data on government portals. Khanna predicted a large-scale Web 3.0 shift would require CIOs to revise their back-office processes, many of which are still based on models from the 1950s and ’60s. In a Web 3.0 world, a larger part of a government’s IT maintenance routine would need to shift to cataloging data and services and posting them to the Web in machine-readable formats, said Khanna. Agencies would also maintain their old service methods for citizens holding on to the traditional paradigm. Khanna hopes for a day when local, state and federal agencies will post data for citizens in machine-readable formats. This would enable single applications to gather all data a citizen might need for interacting with government.
“They need a horizontal view of government,” Khanna said. “The data has to be harmonized.”
Augmented Reality, the convergence of data and real-world environments, promises to be a core element of Web 3.0. Several apps for mobile phones have already begun leveraging the technology. One such app, WayFinder NYC, was the winning entry in New York City’s 2009 BigApps contest. With the app installed on a smartphone, a user places the device into photo mode. Directions to the nearest subway and PATH stations are then overlaid on the screen image.
So what is a “machine-readable” format anyway? Critical to the Web 3.0 idea is the “Semantic Web,” a term coined by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. The Semantic Web refers to the different methods and technologies enabling Web applications to understand the meanings of the data they scan. An HTML coding technique called “microformatting” will likely be a common solution, said Hillary Hartley, director of integrated marketing for NIC. For example, Rhode Island has microformatted its employee contact and public meeting notification data since 2008. Utah also is converting various data sets to microformatting, which the state hopes to release as part of a portal redesign scheduled for May. In 2009, Utah became a leader in machine-to-machine communication by equipping its state portal with geo-IP technology, which reads an end-user’s IP address to display content relevant to that end-user’s physical location. The implementation helped the state win the top honor in the Center for Digital Government’s Best of the Web Awards program in 2009. Utah CTO Dave Fletcher hopes to add microformatting to that location-based data to enable third-party applications that might be inclined to deliver it to end-users. The state also expanded its geo-IP capabilities on some applications to identify the locations of smartphone users. For example, Utah.gov has a smartphone application for journalists that pinpoints their location in Utah and alerts them to police reports of interest in the surrounding area.
“We can present real-time information in terms of where those things are going on, along with photo imagery and videos where we have it, which gets it to the media a lot faster,” Fletcher said.
Hartley cautioned that microformatting was still far from being a mainstream agenda item in state and local government. Dan Chapman, director of creative services 2.0 for RI.gov, agrees that the interest today is among a narrow group.
“The Web standard community is very much in favor of it,” he said. “It’s sort of one of those quiet things that is happening behind the scenes.”
Chapman said machine-readable data could lead to people interacting with government exclusively through third-party applications, but that likely wouldn’t replace government portals. “I think the websites are still going to be around, but it’s certainly not the focal point,” he said. “It’s just part of a larger strategy for getting information out.”
Pahlka remarked that governments need to ensure that they post data with programmers’ common concerns in mind. For example, programmers often find errors in the data, and many governments lack a process for programmers to report errors and receive corrections, she said. Different cities use different formats for posting data, which creates an obstacle when comparing one city’s data to another, Pahlka added.
Some see Web 3.0 as a way for Web applications to have a 3-D presence in the physical world. Through smartphones, Web apps can use the physical senses of hearing, sight, touch and so forth. The infrastructural trend of installing sensors that transmit data throughout commonly trafficked areas is expanding the possibilities for machine-to-machine communication. Hartley imagines there will be a day when smartphone users can drive past a motor vehicles office that has installed sensors for transmitting citizen reminders. As people pass by, they could be alerted on their phones that their license or vehicle registration is about to expire.
The interaction between the application and a smartphone is another form of machine-to-machine communication. Pahlka points to applications the private sector has already released in connection to government objects. In a Forbes.com article, she and O’Reilly Media founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly highlight Android app Wikitude, which has a travel guide that uses the Android’s camera, compass and image recognition to tell a user what monument he or she is viewing. Additionally the Android app Darkslide shows users pictures of what’s nearby. Pahlka said there might come a day when a smartphone user drives over a pothole, the device senses it and an app automatically reports that pothole to the appropriate public works agency.
Given that some governments are still not participating in the open data movement, a truly Web 3.0 world could still be far off, Hartley said. “I guess I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to Web 3.0,” she said. “I see people bandying this term about, and oftentimes it feels disingenuous to me. I think we are a long way from Web 3.0 in government.”
A common fear expressed by government officials about open data in government is the potential for blogs and other media outlets to find ammunition to criticize public agencies.
Pahlka thinks the growing political popularity of transparency and the Obama administration’s open data repository Data.gov will eliminate nonparticipation as an option. As elected officials take office with transparency as a political platform, they’re going to demand that agencies comply with that agenda, Pahlka predicted.
“If you look at the strong signals that are coming from Washington, D.C.,” she said, “right now it is becoming very clear that this is the direction the top leaders in government technology want to see the rest of the country go. I think that pressure will increase.”
Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.