Shadbolt was born in London but raised in the Derbyshire village of Ashford-in-the-Water, living a "bucolic existence" until he went to university. He studied for an undergraduate degree in philosophy and psychology at Newcastle University. His PhD was from the Department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh. His thesis resulted in a framework for understanding how human dialogue is organised.
Shadbolt's research has been in Artificial Intelligence since the late 1970s working on a broad range of topics - from natural language understanding and robotics through to expert systems, computational neuroscience, memory through to the semantic web and linked data. He also writes on the wider implications of his research. One example is the book he co-authored with Kieron O'Hara that examines privacy and trust in the Digital Age – The Spy in the Coffee Machine. His most recent research is on the topic of social machines – understanding the emergent problem solving that arises from a combination of humans, computers and data at web scale. The SOCIAM project on social machines is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
In 1983, Shadbolt moved to the University of Nottingham and joined the Department of Psychology. From 2000 to 2015 he was Professor of Artificial Intelligence in the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton.
From 2000 to 2007, he led and directed the Advanced Knowledge Technologies (AKT) Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration (IRC). It produced a broad range of Semantic Web research, including how diverse information could be harvested and integrated and how semantics could help computers systems recommend content.
In 2006 Shadbolt became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (FREng). He is a Fellow of the British Computer Society (FBCS) and was its President in its 50th jubilee year. That same year, Nigel Shadbolt, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Dame Wendy Hall and Daniel Weitzner, founded the Web Science Research Initiative, to promote the discipline of Web Science and foster research collaboration between the University of Southampton and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
From 2007 to 2011 Shadbolt was Deputy Head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University of Southampton, from 2011 to 2014 he was Head of the Web and Internet Science Group, the first research group dedicated to the study of Web science and Internet science, within ECS, comprising 140 staff, researchers and PhD students.
His Semantic Web research led to the formation of Garlik, offering identity protection services. In 2008, Garlik was awarded Technology Pioneer status by the Davos World Economic Forum and won the UK BT Flagship IT Award. Experian acquired Garlik in November 2011.
In June 2009 he was appointed together with Sir Tim Berners-Lee as Information Advisor to the UK Government. The two led a team to develop data.gov.uk, a single point of access for UK non-personal Governmental public data. In May 2010 he was appointed by the UK Coalition Government to the Public Sector Transparency Board responsible for setting open data standards across the public sector and developing the legal Right to Data.
In December 2012, Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee formally launched the Open Data Institute. The ODI focuses on incubating and nurturing new businesses wanting to harness open data, training and promoting standards.
In 2013, Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee joined the board of advisors of tech startup State.com, creating a network of structured opinions on the semantic web.
On 1 August 2015 he became Principal of Jesus College, Oxford and a Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, University of Oxford.
He was featured on The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 in April 2015.
In 2016, he delivered the Hinton Lecture of the Royal Academy of Engineering, entitled "Engineering the Future of Data".
In 2017, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society.
Sir Nigel is married to Bev Saunders, a designer, and has two children.