Freebase launches today, a new startup that intends to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. If that last bit sounds familiar, it’s because it’s actually Google’s mission, but Freebase seems intent on doing it, too.
Like Google Base, Freebase is a massive database. The purpose of the database is to centralize as much data as possible, and allow participants to freely add and access data – developers can extract information from Freebase via a set of APIs and add it to their web applications. It also builds relationships between highly structured pieces of data, something that can’t easily be done with distributed data controlled by different entities. Tim O’Reilly gives a great and in depth overview of the service and why it’s important. The Time’s John Markoff explains it to the masses.
But hopefully, this narrative will give you a sense of what Metaweb [the company that created Freebase] is reaching for: a wikipedia like system for building the semantic web. But unlike the W3C approach to the semantic web, which starts with controlled ontologies, Metaweb adopts a folksonomy approach, in which people can add new categories (much like tags), in a messy sprawl of potentially overlapping assertions.
Now, the really powerful thing about this is that all these categories, these data types and the web of fields that define them, provide new hooks for applications that will be able to extract meaning from the data. That’s what makes Metaweb a kind of semantic web application.
If Metaweb gets this right, this bottom up approach will build new connections between data, new categories and ways of thinking. It will likely be messy and contradictory for a while, but as I told John Markoff for the story on Metaweb that he was preparing for the New York Times tonight, they are building new synapses for the global brain.
Freebase has already sucked in data from Wikipedia and other sources, and individuals can fill in their own data, too. No word yet on how bad data will be purged from the system.
Freebase looks to be what Google Base is not: open and useful. I imagine there will be more than one forehead self-smacked at Google HQ tomorrow, as they think “We could have done this.”