‘There’s this huge corporate pushback’ … Tim Berners-Lee. Photograph: Catrina Genovese/WireImage
In 2009, an American civil rights lawyer created a mashup mapping a neighbourhood called Coal Run, Ohio. It showed which houses were connected to the town’s water supply and which houses were occupied by black or white families. A mashup uses data from more than one source, usually publicly available information, and almost always presents it on a map. The results were extraordinary: the map showed that almost all the white households in Coal Run had water piped to their homes, while all but a few black households did not. Those without piped water had to carry water home from the water plant by whatever transport they could muster, pump it from wells contaminated with sulphur and oil from old mining operations or, in extremis, collect rainwater.
For more than 50 years, Coal Run’s African American residents had called on local authorities to remedy this inequity. Nothing happened except that, during that time, public waterlines spread around Coal Run to new businesses and homes – overwhelmingly to white people’s homes. The mashup helped them get what they wanted when it was used as part of a discrimination complaint to the Ohio civil rights commission. But what had changed? Surely the disgraceful facts were already at the complainants’ disposal? The answer was that the data could be assembled differently online.
“We could articulate the case in words,” said civil rights lawyer Reed Colfax who represented the residents. “But when you’d put up the maps,they’d stop listening to you and look at them [as if to] say, ‘Is this really possible?'”
Since Coal Run was connected to the city’s water supply, a federal jury has awarded its residents $11m in damages from the city of Zanesville and Muskingum County. Now it’s only a few older residents who think that when it rains it’s a good time to do the laundry.
The case is used by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the world wide web nearly 24 years ago, as an example of the sharing, perhaps caring and certainly egalitarian principles realised by means of his invention. At a recent Ted talk, Berners-Lee also cited as evidence of the help the web can be to humanity the case of GeoEye, a company that shortly after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake released satellite imagery of the devastated areas, with a licence that allowed people to use it. Quickly, relief workers zoomed into it – and added to OpenStreetMap details about the devastated area – to build up a picture of which roads were blocked, which buildings damaged, where refugee camps were growing and when medical ships were reaching port. “The site rapidly became the map to use on the ground if you were doing relief work,” said Berners-Lee.
This sort of thing was what he hoped would be made possible after the birth of the world wide web at Cern in Geneva in December 1990. “It consisted of one web site and one browser, which happened to be on the same computer,” he recalls. The simple setup demonstrated a profound concept: that any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere. In this spirit, the web spread quickly from the grassroots up.