NBN the tip of the iceberg for Australia's tech future: Berners-Lee

Looking on as the CSIRO launches a digital research project aimed at using the NBN for boosting the Australian economy, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has said that the network is just the start of bigger and brighter things to come.
Written by AAP , Contributor and  Michael Lee, Contributor

"A piece of fibre coming out of the wall" is just the starting point for the National Broadband Network (NBN), world wide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee said.

Credited with inventing the web in 1989, Berners-Lee said that Australia must recognise the need for continual innovation if it's to succeed in the digital era.

The British academic, speaking at the launch of a CSIRO digital research project in Sydney on Tuesday, said that the NBN will be a brilliant tool if it is used to help concepts like the research body's AU$40-million-a-year plan for a digital economy.

"The NBN is a wonderful commitment to getting everyone connected," the 57 year-old said.

"It's a brilliant foundation — it will be a foundation for many things.”

"But having established that foundation, the fact you have a piece of fibre optic coming out of the wall, is really only a start."

The CSIRO's "flagship" project, which may last 10 years, aims to find ways of helping businesses and governmental organisations make greater use of digital technology in Australia after the mining boom.

It will focus primarily on the services sector, which provides about 80 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, but has in recent years suffered from declining productivity growth.

The CSIRO hopes that by utilising the NBN and providing the sector with innovative new ways of working digitally, it can boost the economy by up to AU$4 billion a year by 2025.

The research is already looking at ways of using technology to predict emergency department waiting times at Queensland hospitals and tracking social media conversations to help fight bushfires.

Helping to launch the project in Sydney, Berners-Lee said that it was an example of how broadband internet may be used to improve quality of life for all citizens.

CSIRO's Ian Oppermann, who will head the project, said that its goals would be accomplished using a three-phased approach. The first will focus on the immediate benefits of using technology today to increase productivity, leading to a second approach of "doing old things in new ways."

"We get to have that conversation when we deliver value right now and we talk about what's possible next. Then the really exciting stuff is when we talk about doing new things in completely new ways--ways we've never envisaged before."

In his talk, Berners-Lee alluded to the technology being used beyond its originally intended purpose, pointing to the internet as a system of protocols that its creators and contributors at the time could not have predicted would grow into the web today.

"Vint Cerf and company in 1969 had built the internet without knowing about the web, and without, in a way, caring about the web. They just wanted to build it for any arbitrary program that wanted to run on top of it. They built the internet as a platform which did not dictate what it was going to be used for, so the web is the same thing, and it's that aspect of the web that has been very important to preserve. It's a platform which does not dictate what sort of applications are built on top of it."

He also urged Australian governments to make far more data available online, including information about schools and hospitals, and to avoid online censorship.

Berners-Lee said that there is a whole host of data that isn't private that could be made available, but at the same time, it isn't a simple matter of putting it all out there and letting someone else sort it out.

He used the example of the figures it might cost to run a school, data that Berners-Lee said would certainly be useful, but at the same time, if a school only had a single teacher, there were privacy concerns that would need to be addressed.

"The art of finding out how you can release aggregated data without accidentally giving away [sensitive] data is really an important thing to do."

Berners-Lee brought up other ethically debatable uses of data, such as whether employers should be looking at the social networks of prospective employees that are under the age of 16, and said that the issues could be more subtle, such as whether data use is culturally acceptable. He said this could have even wider impacts when data is inevitably shared on an international scale, highlighting the scenario where US and Australian doctors may have to bring up patient records, but the laws and culture around health records differ significantly.

His comments came as new figures showed that far more work would be needed for the NBN to reach its 2013 mid-year rollout target.

Rollout figures for the second half of calendar 2012, released on Tuesday by NBN Co, showed the fibre-cable work has now passed 46,100 existing premises and 26,300 new home lots.

The June 2013 target is for it to pass 286,000 premises.

Federal Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy insisted that the rollout was on track and would be ramped up in 2013.

"This year you will not be able to walk around a street in Australia without falling over construction work for the NBN," he told the CSIRO launch.

"It will continue to ramp up in every state and territory around the country."

NBN Co boss Mike Quigley said that the government-owned entity was "ramping up" the $37.4 billion project, but acknowledged that there was much work to do to meet the June schedule.

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