Gordon Brown outlined the Labour Party's technology plans for the future on Monday, promising to roll out a personalised, open source-based web 'dashboard' that will allow citizens to interact with all government services.
The prime minister said at a London event that the new project, called Mygov, will be closely tied in with developments in the Semantic Web. Brown also announced £30m of government funding for a new Institute of Web Science, dedicated to research in this area.
The prime minister's speech, titled 'Building Britain's Digital Future', is the first time that the government has revealed many of these plans. The speech was made 10 days after the Conservative Party launched its technology manifesto, and comes in the run-up to the general election, which is expected to take place on 6 May.
"Mygov marks the end of the 'one size fits all', 'man from the ministry knows best' approach to public services," Brown said. He added that the portal would "constitute a radical new model for how public services will be delivered and for how citizens engage with government, making interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping".
The government launched a similar portal, Directgov, six years ago. According to Brown, Mygov will be more personalised, and will represent a shift from a top-down approach to "government on demand".
"Rather than civil servants being the sole authors and editors, we will unleash data and content to the community to turn into applications that meet genuine needs," Brown said. "This does not require large-scale government IT infrastructure; the open-source technology that will make it happen is freely available. All that is required is the will and willingness of the centre to give up control."
Brown gave examples of the kinds of services that would be available through Mygov. These include making applications for passports and disabled parking badges, paying council tax, arranging hospital and GP appointments, applying for schools, and managing pensions, tax credits and child benefits.
Asked at the event whether Mygov would be linked with the National Identity Scheme for authentication purposes, neither Brown nor any of the ministers present would confirm or deny such a link.
The prime minister promised to establish a new digital public services unit in the cabinet office under the leadership of Martha Lane Fox. Fox, the co-founder of Lastminute.com, is already the government's champion for digital inclusion and will become the UK's digital champion, under the policy.
Brown also suggested that Labour's proposals for providing next-generation broadband access — which would aid the rollout of "more personalised and more effective public services" — would lead to nationwide coverage.
"We can allow unbridled market forces to provide a solution on its own terms and according to its own timetable as others would do, [but] the result would be superfast broadband coverage determined not even by need or social justice, or by the national interest, but by profitability alone," he said. "This would open a lasting, pervasive and damaging new digital divide... between those fortunate to live in densely-populated areas and those not."
According to Brown, 21 percent of UK adults have never accessed the internet. He described these people as being "trapped in a second tier of citizenship, denied... a fundamental freedom in the modern world: to be part of the internet and technology revolution".
Stephen Timms, the minister for Digital Britain, was also in attendance. ZDNet UK asked him how people who are disconnected from the internet for file-sharing copyrighted material — as could happen under the terms of the Digital
Economy Bill that is being fast-tracked through the Commons — would be able to discharge their full rights as citizens, given the government's new emphasis on online access.
Timms said there would be "many ways" in which they could do this, but would not specify one such way.
The Semantic Web will, according to Brown, underpin Labour's proposed shift towards e-government. Described by the prime minister as "a simple concept", the Semantic Web involves an evolution of the existing web that will be based on the meaning of linked data, rather than just the content of that data.
The new Institute of Web Science will be headed up by Sir Tim Berners-Lee — the originator of the concept of the Semantic Web and a government advisor on open data — and Professor Nigel Shadbolt, who already works on such research with Berners-Lee and Dame Wendy Hall at the Web Science Research Institute.
Brown said the £30m of funding for the new institute is intended to "help place the UK at the cutting edge of research on the Semantic Web and other emerging web and internet technologies". He added that the government was inviting universities and private sector web developers and companies to join the project.
The Labour Party will continue working to open up official data, Brown promised. He said a new Labour government would make future public transport franchises conditional on the operating companies freeing up timetable and real-time running information.
From 1 April, a "substantial package" of Ordnance Survey information will be made freely available to the public without restrictions on reuse, Brown said. He also announced an online inventory of "all non-personal datasets held by departments and arms-length bodies", which he described as "a Domesday Book for the 21st century" by April 2011. The program will be managed by the National Archives, he said, adding that any business or individual will be free to embed this data in their own websites.
"The programme will be managed by the National Archives and it will be overseen by a new open data board, which will report on the first edition of the new Domesday Book by April next year," Brown said. "The government will then produce its detailed proposals including how this work can be extended to the wider public sector."