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Open Data Isn’t Just a Good Idea, It’s Factual

Steve Puma | Tuesday October 13th, 2009 | 0 Comments

Above: “U.S. Hikes”, a live data table by Factual.com: Click & Scroll to view & edit data.

“Decisions. They are made every day. Some are made on the fly such as when a low fuel alert prompts me to stop at the nearest gas station. Some are more considered, involving detailed research and analysis, perhaps on the Internet or consulting with friends or experts. And others are made for us, by our friends and family, or our government. An important question is: are we all, given the data available to us today, making good, well-informed decisions? One thing is nearly certain, if your data isn’t accurate and accessible, a good decision isn’t likely to follow.” – Factual, Inc. CEO Gil Elbaz

As anyone who has ever tried to write a business plan knows, good, reliable data is hard to come by, and can be very expensive. Los Angeles-based startup Factual.com aims to change all that by creating a free “open data platform”.. The company believes that allowing the crowd to create, edit, discuss, share, substantiate or disagree with the data data will bring true accountability and openness to data.

Launched today with this inspiring press release/blog post, Factual.com invites anyone with an internet connection to upload and edit data, on any subject they wish, into Excel-like tables. The tables then become free, open and available to everyone. Factual even takes it one step further than the traditional Wiki model, by giving developers and content providers an API and widgets, which not only allow users to view data tables, and applications based on them, while on another company’s website, but also encourages those users to add, modify and discuss it as well. More about how this works in a few paragraphs.

Factual is the brainchild of Gil Elbaz, a self-proclaimed “data junkie”. Prior to forming Factual, he co-founded Applied Semantics (AdSense), which was acquired by Google in 2003. Elbaz says he has been “crazy about data” ever since he got his first computer, an Apple IIe, in 1983. He became particularly fascinated by the “power of the spreadsheet”, embodied by the much-touted VisiCalc program. According to Elbaz, Factual represents the path that Applied Semantics would have taken, had it not been purchased by Google.

How does it work?
Like it’s cousin, Wikipedia, Factual is inherently simple to understand and use. Most computer users would have little trouble with it’s table-based data entry. They have the option to upload data from their desktop, collect data located on the Internet through a URL, or type it in manually. They will probably want to search to see if the data already exists on Factual. (Existing data tables include The California Restaurant Database, Farmers Markets in the U.S., 2009 Clean Air Choice Vehicles and my personal favorites: Beer Qualities, Video Games & Cheats, and Cigars of the World). For example, searching for cigars currently yields 39 tables.

A table creator can choose to merge those tables in any way he sees fit. The program will execute the merge, adding columns and validating the data automatically. The validation of data is a vital component of Factual, and the company relies on several validation methods, both human-based and computer-based:

  • Lots of Eyeballs: [According to Wikinomics...], the more people that view data, contribute data, modify data and debate the validity of data, the more accurate that data will be.
  • Transparency: All additions and edits are saved as a history which is also easily accessible to everyone, via a pop-up when you hover over a cell that has been edited. Manual citations can be added, showing the original source of the data.
  • Automation: Unlike Wikipedia, the Factual software does not rely on human input alone. The software attempts to validate data during merges by choosing edits that have been more widely accepted in the past over recent edits. New data is compared against data provided by the government, public sources and content providers.
  • Open Model: Any and all changes, whether computer or human, are open to debate, and can be modified or reverted.

Once the data is uploaded and merged, users will have the option to share and access that data in a variety of ways. The simplest of these is embedding a data table in a blog or website. The process is basically the same as embedding a YouTube video or an Amazon advertising widget. Software developers will have access to Factual’s Application Programming Interface (API), allowing them to create a variety of programs based on the data tables. Expect to see everything from iPhone apps to desktop research tools.

What separates Factual from other syndicated content providers is that the widgets and APIs are bidirectional: while viewing a table on a 3rd-party provider’s website, users will be able to edit the content in real time, and the changes will be saved in the Factual repository, all without having to link back to Factual.com. Mr. Elbaz believes that this feature will lead to much faster adoption of the technology and quicker growth of the data store, which would ultimately mean higher quality data.

How do they make money?
Upon learning about Factual and whet they are up to, I was immediately struck by how useful it will be, not to mention valuable. But then I thought about how Wikipedia is essentially a non-profit, and I wondered if Factual would take the same route.

It turns out that Factual is, in fact, a for-profit company, although it does not plan on earning money from the data itself, but will instead focus on value-added services. These wold include things like dedicated support and advanced tools. In this way, the company is able to achieve its mission of providing an open, collaborative environment where anyone can easily view, contribute, improve and share data.

What about copyrights?
Factual discourages its users from uploading data that are confidential, restricted from publication by contract , or that was obtained by illegal means (e.g. cracking a protected database). Although the company allows users to add “enforceable terms and conditions” to any table they contribute, it discourages the practice, and reminds anyone who does so that it is their responsibility to enforce any terms. According to the company’s FAQ, “Raw data, facts, and general ideas are not protected by copyright law. If you’ve legally gathered a bunch of data and post it to Factual, it is in most cases free for the world to use and build upon.”

Fin
This technology should be insanely useful for sustainability professionals, for whom finding reliable data can be a major challenge. I would encourage anyone with access to such data to share it freely, so that we all can benefit. As a matter of fact, several socially-conscious organizations are already using Factual, including LiveStrong.com (cancer provider database), The Marine Animal Coalition (Vegan-only restaurants), and Beginning Farmers (list of 500 farmers’ markets).

Have you tried Factual.com yet? What do you think? What are some ways that access to open data might be useful to you or your business? Please let us know in the comments.

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Steve Puma is a sustainability and technology consultant. He currently writes for 3p as well as on his personal blog, ThePumaBlog.com, about the intersection of sustainability, technology, innovation, and the future. Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio School of Management and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can contact Steve through email or LinkedIn, or follow him on twitter.


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