In 2006, group of academics from the University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) and MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), announced an ambitious plan to launch a new branch of science – Web Science.

These were no ordinary academics.  Among the elite group were Sir Tim Berners Lee (the creator or the World Wide Web), Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Professor Nigel Shadbolt of ECS.

This group perceived a need to better understand the nature of the Web and to engineer its future and ensure its social benefit.  The rationale was that the Web is a construct unrivaled in human history and the scale of its impact and the rate of its adoption are unparalleled.  

They recognised a great opportunity to study the Web through a new academic discipline, as well as an obligation to do so.

Web Science came into being in October 2006 with the launch of the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI), which was later to be renamed the Web Science Trust (WST). Edelman was proud to assist in launch of WSRI, which achieved widespread international media coverage at the time.

Such a huge undertaking as establishing a new branch of science was bound to take some time, but the WST has been hard at work these past few years, putting the concept of Web Science on the academic map, developing curriculum, establishing partnerships, growing a support base and engaging in initial research projects.

Two weeks ago, I attended an event at the Royal Society in London, designed to explain Web Science to prospective students and at an undergraduate level.  It was quite exciting to see just how far Web Science has come in a few short years.  The auditorium was full and it was clear there was a real interest in the subject, with a lively discussion following presentations from academics and industry representatives.

Unlike Computer Science, Web Science will have an interdisciplinary approach.  To this end, participation from students with an interest in humanitarian disciplines such as psychology and anthropology will be as important as more apparently aligned areas such as mathematics and physics. 

Yesterday, the evolution of Web Science took a great leap forward with the formation of the Institute for Web Science, which was announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown during a speech in London. Significantly, it will be backed with £30 million funding from the UK Government.

The Institute for Web Science will be led by Sir Tim Berners Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt and will be jointly run by the University of Southampton and Oxford University.

According to a statement issued by the University of Southampton, the Institute for Web Science will be designed to make the UK the hub of international research into the next generation of web and internet technologies and their commercialisation.

Web innovation is viewed as an important issue by the government at present and they have also been consulting with Sir Tim Berners Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt on the issue of unlocking government data. 

Recently, the government launched a new site called data.gov.uk.  The site is a refuse of government data and seeks to provide access to interested companies, organisations and developers for with the aim of encouraging the development of new businesses.  It is hoped this will generate tax revenue greater than could have been realised by selling that data for commercial use.

In my opinion, both the funding of the Institute for Web Science and the launch of data.gov.uk are outstanding ideas and that could put the UK at the centre of the Web innovation. At a time when government funding cuts are a central theme from both sides of politics, it’s good to see that a long-term view is also being taken.

@andyrobertson