Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee's next project: a platform that gives users control of their data

A $1 million gift from MasterCard will help a CSAIL team develop "Solid," a decentralized linked-data system

This week MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) announced that it has received a $1 million gift from MasterCard that will go towards the research efforts of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and co-leader of the lab’s Decentralized Information Group.


Specifically, the gift will help him and his team develop technologies for “Solid,” a system for building decentralized social applications using what the researchers call a “linked-data” platform. Solid is customizable and easy to scale, relying as much as possible on existing web standards. Like multiuser applications, applications on Solid talk to each other through a shared filesystem – and, in this case, that filesystem is the entire World Wide Web.


"Right now we have the worst of both worlds, in which people not only cannot control their data, but also can’t really use it, due to it being spread across a number of different silo-ed websites,” says Berners-Lee. “Our goal is to develop a web architecture that gives users ownership over their data, including the freedom to switch to new applications in search of better features, pricing, and policies.”


In contrast with cloud-storage companies like Dropbox and Google Drive, Solid doesn’t own each user’s data. And unlike other emerging open-source efforts like OwnCloud, Solid offers a generic platform on which developers can build virtually any kind of application.


“The core of the platform has no application logic, which means that developers don’t have to create a new API [application processing interface] for every new app,” says Andrei Sambra, the project’s technical lead. “There is a very generic, data-specific API, so the data can easily be reused by different applications, but you as the consumer can ultimately tell the system where, how and with whom you want to share your data.”


The team is still very much in the early stages of creating the system and is collaborating with researchers from the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) and Oxford University. They are also hiring developers to build up various technologies for the project, and will also have to do comprehensive stress-testing to ensure that the system works at different speeds, scales and complexities.


“We need to develop apps that prove that it can be built, as well as standards that show that it is simple enough to be widely deployed online,” says Berners-Lee. “It’s not enough to simply throw a technology into the world and hope that people take to it, but we are confident that once we build it out the project will serve as a new ecosystem that is hugely beneficial to both web-developers and web-users.