Web Observatory is about how people use data and behave on the Web

How right is it to put your content on the Web behind paywalls when there is no fee for posting information on the Web? “Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s [inventor of the World Wide Web] thesis is Web has to be free… either everybody uses it or nobody uses it,” said Prof. Dame Wendy Hall, Dean of Physical and Applied Sciences at the University of Southampton. “Because the Web is free, people are using it.” Prof. Hall was recently in Chennai to attend the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) conference.

After all, the world would have been very different today had Sir. Berners-Lee tried making money out of the Web. “We can’t revisit his experiment. We can’t rerun it. But we can kill the way it works at the moment,” she said emphatically. After all, the Web can work efficiently only if many use it and in order to make that happen, it has to be given free.

She cites the example of the Times which went behind paywall in mid 2010. It does make money from the sizeable subscribers. But the consequence is that the number of people reading it is very limited. “The model is wrong,” Prof. Hall said. “It doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of making money.”

“To me, having a newspaper behind paywall is just nonsense,” she said. “Analytics is the answer to make money with news.” The trick is to track users who tweet news items that appear in the paper, and suddenly marketing goes global. “That’s what newspapers should be doing and not charge for access,” she added. And for that newspapers must be putting up their content for free.

In another context she noted how the Web started with no data and then how people and organisations posted their data. “That’s why people are so very important. It’s not just about technology.”

Prof. Hall must know best as she has been a part of the Web revolution. She was a member of the team that digitised photos, videos and audio content. She was at the centre of the multimedia and hypermedia revolution. She is also the President of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the first person to become one outside North America.

One of her pet projects is the Web observatory. According to her, it is akin to astronomers looking at the sky to understand how the universe started and how the planets evolved. “The Web Observatory is a big analytics platform. It is not about data, but how people are using the data and behaving on the Web,” she explained.

“Our thesis is, in order to study the Web, you need to observe what happens on the Web. To do this one has to study it every day to understand the “dynamics of the Web and the interaction with technology, and what people do with it.” It is basically to do with analysing the data to find out how things evolve. The classic example is the twitter — on who is influencing who and how things evolve in the microblog.

“We have found some interesting similarities and differences of how twitter is evolving in different regions,” Prof. Hall revealed. “It reflects to some extent the culture.”

So when a major event — be it a disaster or an election — happens it is possible to track what the effect of that is. “We are really tracking how these events lead to behavioural changes,” she explained. “They are very long time studies.”

She is also encouraging researchers to deposit their data and not just papers. She does not mean sharing commercially confidential information or those that invade privacy issues.

She is well aware that it is so very difficult to keep information confidential in this digital age.

“It is so easy to identify each individual from a huge set of data. It is impossible to act under 100 per cent anonymity” she warns.

So she is encouraging the idea of sharing data under certain conditions. She is quite confident that companies and people who worry about privacy would join once the concept is worked out.

“It is going to change the world because we won’t be just publishing papers. We will publish the tools and software used for analysing the data,” she noted.