Reflecting on (my nearly) 30 years of World Wide Web

Introduction

We are celebrating today the 30th anniversary of the Web. I’m taking this moment in time to reflect on my personal history of and with the Web; but summarizing more than 25 years in a few words is not an easy task, especially for someone like me.

I didn’t want to skip any of the stories below because I have cherished them over the years and I still do. They are part of me. They contributed to make me who I am today. I hope they may give others some useful information about what the Web was, is, and may well be, from a humble insider.

The Early Days

My beginnings at the University were not any good. I was not properly advised before taking a decision on what to do after school. I was young, had no clear ideas as to what I would like to work on in my adult life, and ended up joining most of my classmates and heading to Industrial Engineering, no less, with no clue about what it was about and what it would entail.

The road was way too bumpy. After almost three years wasting my time on something that was clearly not my cup of tea, I decided to take a sort of U-turn. In the middle of my third year I decided to stop and express how I felt at home. I wanted to give up and move on. It was not well received (let’s leave it there).

I decided to take proper advice and went to Madrid to visit one of my aunts, a professor whom had lots of connections in the education sector. I met several of her peers working in different knowledge areas but most of them science-related because that was the only thing I knew with some certainty. After a short while, I got really impressed with something I had only experienced before when I was younger and had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum at home: computing.

ZX Spectrum+

ZX Spectrum+ Computer (1984)
(Bill Bertram, CC-BY-2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Spectrum was mainly for me at the time the equivalent of what we know today as a gaming console. Some of you may still remember the cassette tapes, and the waiting time hearing the annoying (fax machine-like) noise to load a game to play on the Spectrum connected to a TV set. Besides gaming, I hardly wrote a couple lines of code on it using BASIC on that thing.
(Oh, my, I’m showing my age quite a bit here!)

But back to my visit to Madrid. Computing was a pretty different game then that what I had experienced. I could see some IBM PCs for the first time in my life (I was lucky a couple years after when I could get one for myself) and see what some computer programs could do by the time; nothing fancy but certainly amazing to me. I was hooked. I decide to enroll in the Computer Science school the year after and so I did.

Although I had used Bulletin Board systems (BBS) and Newsgroups a bit before, it was there when I first used e-mail, on a Unix-based computer using Pine. I had been previously fascinated by the first fax machine I could use (in my father’s office) and the possibility of transmitting a document over the wire to anywhere in the world. This time, the technology was at my fingertips. I could write a text, hit send, and someone would receive it instantly on the other side of the world. And that was just the beginning.

 

The Web

The Original World Wide Web (1989) <br/>(Science Museum)

The original NeXT computer used by Sir Tim Berners-Lee to design the World Wide Web and also the first web server (1989)
(© Science Museum)

I was lucky the University was one of the first in Spain to embrace the Web and setup their own Web server, and so I got to browse the Web for the first time using Lynx; yes, all text-based in black and white. The browsing experience only got richer with time. But there’s something I remember very clearly as one of the all-time best memories of my Web history.

I have always been a music fan. As I recently read, it seems your music taste forms at a particular time in your life. In my case, it was in the early 1990s and the “new” american alternative rock called “grunge”; remember Nirvana and Smells Like Teen Spirit and all the other bands from Seattle and nearby places? My long time favorite band has been since Pearl Jam. It was 1994 when they released their Vitalogy album and 1995 when they toured in support of it.

I had been already engaged in mailing lists of fans and contributing to a fanzine called Release. We all were eagerly awaiting the release of that new album and highly anticipating the new tour. More fan-led websites had already emerged. If memory serves, Five Horizons was one of the first.

I will always remember the first time I loaded a page with the review of a show and could see a photo (very slowly, line by line) loading on the screen in full color with Mike McCready jumping during a guitar solo (I wish I remembered which show it was, too, but my memory is not that good). Something apparently insignificant today made me see the potential back then.

 

Pearl Jam live

Pearl Jam Live (© Pearl Jam)
(not the actual photo from 1995, but close)

Many fans like me also spent quite some time collecting and exchanging music. Pearl Jam have always been in favor of people recording their shows and sharing them, to the extent they have been releasing them officially as bootlegs since a few years ago. I remember becoming mailing list friends with a few people and exchanging material with them. There was this guy, Andrew, from Australia, with whom I remember I exchanged quite a few recordings. This, by the time, meant recording to a cassette tape (a CD later on), packing it, sending it to the antipodes at a quite expensive cost and waiting for the small packet to hopefully arrive a few weeks later there. (As an aside: Andrew and I had the chance to meet in person in Spain while he was following the band during their 1996 European Tour.)

Fast forward a couple years and there was no more postal service involved. Recordings converted to MP3 format first, FLAC (lossless) later, were now only a click away, shared via mailing lists and fan web pages.

And what about my career in the meantime? I kept on being increasingly fascinated by what the Web was becoming and allowing us to do. I started to focus more on Web standards and technologies. I got to know what the W3C was, learned HTML, Javascript, got to build a few small websites; also started to slightly engage on open source related efforts (XML’s based Apache Cocoon) to the extent my final year project was titled “Extreme XML”. I knew I wanted to spend my professional career working to get the most out of the Web.

I took a few small jobs locally here and there where I could work building websites but also have some time to keep on learning on my own. At a point in time, I started with a university colleague a small e-commerce startup. I failed miserably. I was not an entrepreneur. But it was a great learning experience.

I then had the chance to join as an intern a leading group at the University who was building one of the first e-learning platforms, and later move to a private company to build a similar one, this time as project lead. I was leveraging the Web as much as I could from a technical point of view.

My Most Significant Move

One of the most known institutions in my hometown is the Princess (formerly Prince) of Asturias Foundation (FPA). Their awards are very prestigious and widely known, and their laureates have been numerous times precursor of those of the Nobel Prizes. In 2002, a group of four Internet and Web pioneers: Lawrence Roberts (who sadly passed away last December), Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, where given the Technical & Scientific Research Award.

 

Vinton Cerf, Lawrence Roberts, Robert Kahn, and Tim Berners-Lee, Technical & Scientific Research Award, Prince of Asturias Awards (2002)

Vinton Cerf, Lawrence Roberts, Robert Kahn, and Tim Berners-Lee, Technical & Scientific Research Award, Prince of Asturias Awards (2002)
(© FPA)

As it usually happens, there were quite a number of side meetings between local, regional and national organizations and the laureates, and there was hope something would emerge from those meetings.

One year after, W3C was considering establishing a presence in Spain and, instead of the usual location for these things (Madrid or Barcelona), our region was chosen. I knew nothing about this by the time.

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Logo

World Wide Web Consortium (2003) (W3C)

A former colleague and a close friend since, called me in September 2003 to tell me rumor had it W3C was coming to Spain, to be established in our region and that they were looking for someone to lead it. He gave me a contact and I sent my CV right away although I was skeptical about the whole thing. Honestly, there were chances given the award the previous year but still.

Then it all happened pretty fast: the organization to host W3C in Spain called me, interviewed me, hired me, appointed me and announced the launch with a significant public event later in October. A couple weeks later, I was on my way to my first truly serious W3C international meeting, in Yokohama, Tokyo, and to meet Sir Tim for the first time. I will always be thankful to Pablo Priesca, CEO at CTIC for the opportunity he gave me.

It was an amazing ride. We raised awareness, we trained people, we built a community, we significantly increased the number of members of the Consortium in Spain, we gave away prizes… we even toured the country in a bus!

 

W3C Spain Bus Tour in Valencia

W3C Spain Bus Tour in Valencia (2004)
(CC-BY Josema Alonso)

One of the things I realized about during my tenure was the gap between technology and public policy. It puzzled me policy makers had to do policy design and development, lawmakers had to draft and pass legislation… without knowing much if anything about the thing at the core, the Web.

 

W3C Team Photo (2007)

W3C Team Photo (2007)
(© Richard Ishida)

In 2007 I started to focus much more on this. I became a fellow at W3C working full time on it. My then manager at W3C, Danny Weitzner, and myself organized a workshop in Washington D.C., USA, including high-level representatives from academia and government, mainly from the UK and USA to discuss cutting edge Web technologies in the context of government.

Open Data

Open Data Sticker (OKF)

Open Data Sticker (2010)
(CC-BY OKF)

These were very interesting years for government and the Web, governments had started to use and embrace new ways to interact with their constituencies using social media, and we were starting to talk about data (due to mashups and the increasing number of rich applications on the Web) more than ever before. The 8 principles of open government data were coined at the end of that year.

In 2008, the W3C eGov Activity was formally launched. I was appointed to manage it and set up its Interest Group chaired by a representative from the UK government and another from the US Government, whom since also became friends. The Group had quite a lot of work to do, the scope was wide so we had to narrow it down and we did so focusing on one main area, open data, and a secondary one, social media.

 

Tim Berners-Lee, The Next Web (2009)
(© TED)

2009 was a big year for open data. In February, Tim delivered a TED talk when he led the audience in a chant: “Raw Data Now!”. In May, the US Government launched Data.gov. In September, the UK Government launched Data.gov.uk. Many other open data portals followed the years after.

I was a privileged member of the open data community. I participated in and managed projects for several governments in Spain at the local and regional levels, including the national government one and also the beginnings of the one in Ghana. The energy was amazing at the time. The forthcoming State of Open Data will tell the story of the last 10 years of open data much better than I can do here, so keep an eye on its publication later this year.

Social Impact

I have always considered myself an unusual software engineer. The great majority of my colleagues have loved to code. I don’t. I could do it in my early career years and do it reasonably well but I was not very good. I’ve been more interested in the technology/policy/society gap, how the Web permeates an increasing number of the most important aspects of our lives, and how the offline and online world frontiers are increasingly blurred.

The W3C’s mission was, and still is, “to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure the long-term growth of the Web”. I have reflected on this quite a few times. If we intend to “lead the Web to its full potential” we clearly cannot do so “by developing protocols and guidelines” alone. Alone here is the key.

The work W3C and other technically-oriented organizations do is essential for the Web to function and grow, but it’s not enough. I had thought we needed to do more at W3C either on our own or in collaboration with others.

 

World Wide Web Foundation Logo

World Wide Web Foundation (2009)
(CC-BY-SA Web Foundation)

As early as 2007, a few W3C staff started to work on a plan to accelerate access to the Web for the 80% (at the time) of the world not using it, and to accelerate the use of the Web for making positive social and economic change. And, yes, positive social and economic change is the key here. This work led to the establishment of the World Wide Web Foundation in 2009 with former W3C CEO Steve Bratt as its first CEO and my former W3C colleague Stephane Boyera as Lead Program Manager.

I had been observing this at a distance, both intrigued and excited.

 

Web Foundation Team Photo (2011)

Web Foundation Team Photo (2011)
(CC-BY Web Foundation)

One of the areas the Foundation wanted to embrace from the very beginning was open data. I was given the opportunity by my former colleagues to interview for the position of open data lead. I have great memories of my interview with Tim over video conference. I really pushed him on the social impact front and I remember we had a great conversation and I left saying something like: we’re almost 100% in agreement and I would love to take this position if you guys were to formally propose so. And they did, and I joined part time (50%) as a start, leaving all other jobs and commitments behind.

 

Preparatory Workshop for ODDC

ODDC Preparatory Workshop, Brasilia (2012)
(CC-By Josema Alonso)

Even when I was still working on open data, I was more focused than ever on the social impact. I got to manage the biggest open data project at the Web Foundation, “Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC)“, along with the Open Data Research Network (something that would have not been possible without the support of Fernando Perini at IDRC and the hiring of my former colleague Tim Davies). We wanted to ensure the benefits open data promised were also reaped by the Global South, something missing in the open data agenda until then. We were able to support 17 partners in 15 countries and produce amazing cutting edge research and initial impact in several places.

I learned from one of my professors some projects are like babies: you love them so much, you protect them, you see them grow, you have a hard time letting them go. Yes, this was the case when the project ended. But I was also (I am still) proud of how we laid the groundwork for our partners to become leaders in their respective work and geographic areas.

I also held quite a few open data leadership and advisory roles around that time, including the Open Government Partnership, the International Open Data Charter, Open Ownership and Open Contracting. And I could grow the program from half of me to a nearly 16 people team!

Back To The Future Web

So, yes, open data as something inextricably linked to the Web. As I heard from an audience member at one of my public talks: open data would have not existed without the Web.

But what about the rest of the Web in the meantime and, especially, over the last couple years? Quite a bit of bad stuff, to be frank.

As we wrote in The Case #ForTheWeb:
“Open a newspaper, turn on the television or scroll through your Twitter feed, and you’re likely to see a story about how the World Wide Web is under threat. We’ve lost control of our personal data and that data is being weaponised against us. The power to access news and information from around the globe is being manipulated by malicious actors. Online harassment is rampant, and governments are increasingly censoring information online — or shutting down the internet altogether.”

Going back to music for a moment, two of my favorite bands have recently reflected on this. Muse‘s “Simulation Theory” talks about Algorithms and Fake News, while A Perfect Circle‘s “Eat The Elephant” touches on how dependence on hyperconnectivity and social media is damaging our societies.

These issues have been mainstream for a while now.

I have asked several friends and colleagues what I personally, and we at the Web Foundation, should do to reverse this trend. I didn’t get many specific answers but there was a common theme: the Web used to be a good place but it’s not anymore, can you make it good again?  And it strongly resonated with me.

 

#ForTheWeb

#ForTheWeb (2018)
(CC-BY Web Foundation)

The Web Foundation launched #ForTheWeb late last year, a global campaign to unite people as one voice to get governments, companies and the public to stand up for a free, open and safe web that benefits everyone. As Tim had mentioned before:
“If we spend a certain amount of time using the internet we have to spend a little proportion of that time defending it, worrying about it, looking out for it… Do me a favour, fight for it for me.”

As we were winding down open data activities, narrowing our focus and starting #ForTheWeb, I was given the opportunity to move to a newly created position, Director of Strategy and Partnerships. One of the responsibilities of the position is to manage strategically key projects and initiatives, and so I was proposed to manage one of the main pieces of #ForTheWeb, the Contract.

Tim released, on behalf of the Web Foundation, the Principles for the Contract on Nov 5, 2018. The idea is that those would serve as the basis to collaboratively develop a full Contract, a document/covenant governments, companies and citizens around the world can commit to, to help protect the open web as a public good and a basic right for everyone. We got so far the participation of many of the key players in the private sector, civil society and governments. We have enaged 6,000 people and there are several working groups building the Contract with nearly 100 participants representing more than 40 organizations. And this is only the beginning.

I am (we are) fully committed to make this a success, to raise the bar by which we hold the various stakeholders to account and, what is much more important, ensure the web becomes, again, a good place.

Now, some may expect me to say: this is a daunting task so wish us luck. But I have (not too long ago) converted to optimism. I believe the trend can be reversed and everyone has a role to play to ensure the web serves humanity, hence here’s my request: if you have not joined us, please do so now and play your part!

 

Me, Noa, Tim in Bilbao (2011)

Me, Noa, Tim in Bilbao (2011)
(© Richard Ishida)

So here I am, back to the basics, I think. #ForTheWeb, for me, for you, for the future generations.

Despite what you may have heard, the Web is not dead and it’s not going to die any time soon.

Long live the Web!

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