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Illumio 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 Illumio users.

``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. 11.

``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 done.

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 application.''

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.

                                      
 

 

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