a new approach to 'social search'
By Elise Ackerman
Imagine if you could search through the information in your colleagues'
heads and uncover unknown areas of expertise and serendipitous connections
-- like a mutual interest in organic gardening or open source databases.
That's not a search you can do on Google. But it is one you can
do thanks to the Internet and a free application called Illumio
developed by Tacit Software of Palo Alto.
Illumio, which was released last month, is a new approach to the
challenge of ``social search,'' finding information that other people
know but haven't uploaded to a Web page.
And unlike services such as Yahoo Answers, Microsoft QnA, LinkedIn
and XING, Illumio allows people to connect in private.
``What we are trying to do is create mutually consensual connections
among people who would never find each otherwise,'' said David Gilmour,
Tacit's founder and chief executive. ``It's like Google meets IM.''
In fact, Illumio borrows the desktop search technology that was
first released by Google -- and subsequently by competitors -- to
discover what a person cares about. It analyzes e-mail, Web searches
and documents stored on a computer's hard drive and uses a mathematical
formula to match that information with requests submitted by other
``The key thing is you don't have to do anything,'' said Steve
Jurvetson, a venture capitalist who was an early investor in Tacit.
Other financial backers include the Woodside Fund, RBC Technology
Ventures, Alta Partners, Reuters Venture Capital, and In-Q-Tel,
the CIA's venture capital firm, which invested just before Sept.
``Among the top priorities of the intelligence community is improving
information sharing across the 16 agencies and we found Tacit's
software provided the best of breed capability in terms of collaboration
and sharing expertise,'' said Donald Tighe, a spokesman for In-Q-Tel.
Illumio allows members to manually create profiles that list their
areas of expertise, but Gilmour said the analysis of a person's
hard drive has proven to be more useful, because it can capture
areas of knowledge a person might overlook.
Gilmour emphasized that the analysis doesn't leave a person's computer.
If Illumio thinks the analysis indicates a match for a particular
query -- say a user has asked to find ``someone familiar with bridge
building requirements in the United Kingdom'' -- it will create
a message on the computer of the person who seems to have that expertise
asking if he or she wants to respond.
At that point, the query and the name of the person who made it
will be revealed. But the would-be expert's name is not, unless
he or she answers the request.
``Nothing happens without explicit permission on a case-by-case
basis every time,'' Gilmour said. He said that requests are also
shown in staggered order to small numbers of people, starting with
the best matches, in order to protect privacy and prevent someone
from getting overloaded with responses.
If the initial matches don't respond, other people in the Illumio
network who are considered a possible match are given an opportunity.
The process can take as long as several days.
Gifford Combs, a hedge-fund manager from Los Angeles, said he used
Illumio to find information about flights between London and Finland.
Combs could have typed multiple requests into a search engine, or
gone to the library, but asking Illumio was much easier.
``You think, gosh, there is someone out there who knows this information,''
he said. The response came back in 30 seconds.
Combs said he is looking forward to a promised feature that will
let users form private groups on Illumio. Combs said it would be
invaluable for him to be able to bounce ideas off of other trusted
investors -- and also to leverage research someone else may have
Gilmour said Illumio does not keep records of the matching process
on a central server, though it does save requests and responses
for 12 months. Unlike Internet giants such as Google, Microsoft
and Yahoo, which keep unspecified troves of data relating to users'
behavior on their network of Web sites, Tacit spells out precisely
what data is retained and for how long.
In August, a Mercury News special report on Internet data found
that the personal information stored by giant Internet companies
can be revealed to third parties under certain circumstances.
``Privacy is not some sort of implementation detail,'' Gilmour
said. ``It is the fundamental bedrock on which we are building this
whole company and this whole idea.''
But the privacy provided with a client-based application comes
with a trade-off. ``Participation gets much harder,'' said Konstantin
Guericke, a co-founder of LinkedIn, a company that hosts a vast
database of profiles that its users can tap for job leads and other
forms of expertise. ``You have to convince people to download an
About 700 people are currently using Illumio at any one time. LinkedIn,
which allows anyone who signs up conduct limited searches in its
database, says it has 8.5 million profiles. Unlike Illimio, LinkedIn
charges subscription fees, starting at $19.95 a month, to broker
connections by providing contact information.
Illumio will be free to individual users; Tacit plans to make money
by charging companies for commercial licenses although it has not
determined pricing yet.