Seventeen years ago this month, I set up the first British government website. I was a young economist at the UK Treasury, and I thought the budget documents should be available online. I proposed this to the Treasury Management Board, most of whom had no idea what I was talking about, but Terry Burns was into computers and to his credit he backed the idea. I chose the domain name “hm-treasury.gov.uk”, a burden which they still bear today.
We got the text of the budget documents as ASCII files on 3.5″ disks from the typesetters, and I worked through the night, using a basic text editor to put the HTML codes into the files manually. I finished marking up the pages about an hour before the Budget Speech began; and we went live as the Chancellor of the Exchequer sat down at the end of his speech.
Not only was the Treasury the first UK government department to have a website, the UK was the first country anywhere in the world to put its budget documents online. Today, of course, it is inconceivable that this information would not be available online. We could see then that the World Wide Web, invented three years earlier by Tim Berners-Lee, would change the way people access information, and we were proud to be part of that change.
In 2009, Tim Berners Lee (now Sir Tim) described in a TED talk his vision of a new internet, that will do for numbers what the web has done for words, pictures and video. He called for data to be unlocked. A year later, in a short 5 minute talk, he shows what can happen when the data are liberated. It is well worth watching:
Once again I find myself persuaded by Tim Berners-Lee’s vision. With an ace team at aidinfo, we are working to see it applied to information about foreign aid. We are working with donors to help them to work out the best way to put their aid data online in a common format (vision paper here – pdf) so that anyone with access to the internet can take that information from many donors, mix it together, and use it to help change their world.
If you want to hear more about why aid transparency is important, listen to this Center for Global Development “wonkcast” – a 20 minute interview with me. And if you want to hear more about how citizens in East Africa are using information to increase “social accountability”, listen to the subsequent wonkcast with Rakesh Rajani.