A team of respected search industry veterans is building a new and different kind of information service that seeks to unify cutting edge technology with the web's original egalitarian vision of people freely helping people.
The Wondir Foundation's ambitious goal is to offer a unique combination of broad metasearch, deep search of the invisible web, and live human answers. Also unique is Wondir's organization as a non-profit foundation, designed to avoid the commercial pressures faced by for-profit search engines and directories.
The project is spearheaded by Matt Koll, the founder and CEO of Personal Library Software, which was acquired by America Online in 1998 to bolster its internal search capabilities. Koll is also acknowledged as the first to write and speak about the Invisible Web, the vast portion of cyberspace that is unindexed by most search engines.
Other key players in the project include Laura Horn, former Vice President of Systems Development for America Online, and Brian Pinkerton, creator of WebCrawler, one of the very first web search engines.
Combining meta search of the open web with deep search of the Invisible web is ambitious enough in itself. Wondir is going beyond that, attempting to organize the hundreds of online "AskA" virtual reference services provided by libraries around the world under a single umbrella, to provide human assistance when search fails to satisfy a user's information need.
"We're aiming to fill a void that's not there," said Koll. "Expert services don't really address the universality of trying to integrate all these different kinds of sources into the answer."
In addition to organizing library AskA services, Wondir also hopes to tap into the expertise of other volunteer online help programs, including government or social service organizations, civic groups, professional associations, university alumni associations and similar groups.
The service will also make extensive use of FAQs, stored Q&As and other searchable web resources. "We think of Wondir as the blending of a universal search engine and a universal message board enlivened with real time communication," says the foundation's about us page. "Wondir will unite Search and Community -- two pillars of the Internet that have not yet lived up to their potential -- by making human help accessible and as simple as asking a question of a search engine."
Another unique angle is that Wondir will be an open source project. Koll says this means that anyone can license and use the Wondir technology at no cost, much like anyone can currently use Open Directory Project directory data.
Koll also hopes that the open source nature of the project will attract volunteers to help with the technological development of the service. "We're using state of the art information retrieval," he said. "We're doing the best relevance ranking and distributed search techniques" to power the search engine. The foundation is also seeking grants to do advanced search technology research.
Wondir is currently ramping up to begin alpha tests of the service, and is seeking help both from volunteers and from sources interested in sponsoring the effort. Though no formal launch date has been established, Koll hopes that a public beta site will be available by the end of the summer, with a full-scale launch during the fall.
Wondir's egalitarian plans are a refreshing reminder of the web's origins as a vast open community where ideas and services were freely shared. According to the foundation's web site:
"The core of Wondir is people and organizations who are committed to helping others and who have a mission to reach out to others with relevant information and assistance -- in contrast to individuals who are trying to make money based on their ability to search the web or answer a question. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just quite different."
Different indeed -- and worthy of your support.
About The Wondir Service
A good overview of Wondir's goals and plans to reach and serve seniors, disadvantaged kids, new citizens, and people with disabilities, along with more mainstream users.
How Wondir is Different
Though Wondir has many things in common with other web search services, it's also dramatically different in many ways.
Contact information for anyone wanting to help with the development of Wondir, participate as an expert, or donate funding to the foundation.
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