In navigating the Web, information fatigue is as common as sunburns in July. There is no comprehensive "card catalogue" system to organize the gargantuan library, nor is there a guarantee that the information is accurate. Typically, search results also include sponsored links, which may not contain the most objective information. Kids (and often adults when the advertising is more subtle or indirect) can't tell the difference between regular content and content that has been paid for.
Seeing an opportunity to bring order to chaos, Joe Firmage, former USWeb founder and Internet whiz-kid, has founded Digital Universe a rapidly evolving project supported by his Silicon Valley-based company ManyOne Networks.
Here's how it works. ManyOne is a platform for people and organizations to build portals ("doorways" of information on specific topics) quickly and inexpensively. It runs the software and the financial infrastructure so users can focus on creating content. Digital Universe's commercial-free portals may include large universal topics such as the Arctic, Human Rights, the Cosmos, until the entire treasure trove of human knowledge is "portalized." Within each portal will be links to vetted articles, websites and news items. The platform is set up to be browser-neutral, which means it's compatible with any computer, even for accessing the 3-D portals (The Human Body and the Cosmos will have this feature). Users will have the option of typing in their age to receive age-specific content.
What makes this massive undertaking significant is that all this information will be overseen by paid experts (known as "stewards") to ensure accuracy, and each portal will be contextualized in relation to other portals. For example, the expert of the Ocean portal can grant editorial control to a steward for the Reef Portal, then in turn the Fish Portal, then the Shark Portal, The Angel Fish Portal, and so on. "The editorial network builds itself, like a tree, so it grows organically and exponentially, with editors choosing editors," says Firmage, 36. "It creates a global editorial room allowing for checks and balances."
For scholars, the Digital Universe is an opportunity to publish their work and educate the public on topics they've spent years studying. It can be disheartening when scholars find inaccurate information on the Web in their topic area. "A lot of information is by those I call the invisibles," says Peter Saundry, Executive Director of the National Council for Science and the Environment. "You have no idea who they are and if they are objective."
Saundry oversaw the launch of the Earth Portal in April, which he says provides for a "visible" community of scientists from around the world, who back their words with their names and reputations. Evolving each day, this portal now has 700 approved experts from some 46 countries contributing to its "Encyclopedia of Earth."
"It isn't an encyclopedia of faith," which Wikipedia has been called "the Earth Portal doesn't have to be taken on faith," says Saundry. He points out that they have the cadre of experts and "quality control" that comes with the Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as the free access that comes with Wikipedia. (Larry Sanger, Wikipedia co-founder, was instrumental in making the Earth Encyclopedia happen.)