Factual, a new open data project founded by Gilad Elbaz, just launched its public beta today. Elbaz's last company, Applied Semantics, was acquired by Google in 2003 and became one of the core components of the search giant's AdSense contextual advertising product. Factual, which is mostly geared towards developers, is somewhat similar to Freebase, though Factual allows for a more free-form approach to building a database than Freebase. Factual provides users and developers with tools to create, contribute and mash up open data on any subject.
Factual also announced that Esther Dyson has joined the company's board of advisors.
For now, Factual obviously only offers a relatively small repository of databases, though the company's current focus is on getting more developers to use its service and on bringing as much data as possible into the system.
Getting Data into Factual.
To enter data, users could obviously tediously enter the data field by field, or upload spreadsheets in most of the standard formats. The service also provides a number of easier ways to import data. You can, for example, give Factual a URL of any website or Wikipedia page that includes tables and the service will automatically create a new table based on this data. We tried this with tables from a number of sites and it generally worked well and only required a few edits. For advanced users, Factual also includes a number of more advanced extraction tools.
Once the data is available on Factual, developers can obviously use the API to read, write and mash this data up in any form they like. Users can also edit tables directly on the site or through an embedded table. In addition, users can mash up and combine existing tables.
Currently, Factual only offers one relatively basic embeddable widget that can only display the table without any graphical embellishments. The company plans to rely on developers to create other ways to access and display the data available on the service.
Not a Wiki
While Factual allows any user to make changes to the database, Factual's model is slightly different from the standard wiki approach where only the last edit is generally visible to the public. Changes made to a fact in a Factual database are more like votes for a certain entry. If three users or data sources say a restaurant doesn't offer vegetarian food, for example, and one user says it does, then the table will display the fact that the majority of users entered. Factual, however, will also display a question mark next to this disputed entry. Users can click on this question mark to see all the editors and data sources.
Factual will obviously try to weed out spam here as well, though given how new the service is, it's hard to evaluate how effective Factual's spam filters are.
Users who enter data into a Factual database do not automatically give up their copyright - though given that Factual focuses on facts, which typically can't be copyrighted anyway, this shouldn't be too much of a problem. Users can, however, choose an open license for their work, which might be necessary if the table they used to seed their database was licensed under a Creative Commons license, for example. Factual's FAQ explains this issue in greater detail.
Would You Use an Open Data Service?
With regards to the question of why businesses would open up their data, Gilad Elbaz told us yesterday that he believes open data could eventually go the way of open source, which also had a hard time to get acceptance among businesses. While open source software is a tool that a lot of companies now use, data is usually what is at the heart of a company's products and it remains to be seen how many companies would really want to put their data into an open database. For now, we mostly expect non-profits and government organizations to make use of this service.