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December 8, 1996

URI students launch
Web-searching service

By Timothy C. Barmann

A world of information is right at your fingertips.

That's promise of the Internet. But finding what you are looking for is another matter.

Anyone who's spent time using any of the dozens of "search engines," which catalog and index what's available on the World Wide Web, knows the frustration of looking and looking and looking.

Enter HumanSearch, a free, custom searching service that's been launched by several students at the University of Rhode Island.

The service is the brainchild of Clay Johnson, a sophomore at URI, who saw an opportunity after reading the results of a survey of Web users taken last spring by the Georgia Institute of Technology.

That survey found that among the main problems people have with the Web is finding information and organizing it. (The survey is at http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/user_surveys/survey-04-1996/.)

"I decided I wanted to fix that, or offer a better solution," said Johnson, who is a zoology major but plans to switch to management systems and information. "I mentioned it to my friends, so we started to crank it out."

What Johnson and his five student-partners have been cranking out are answers. Queries have been coming in at a rate of 10 to 15 a day after the students advertised the service this fall on the Internet.

Questions are submitted through a Web site (http://www.mindspring.com/~cjoh/), which says a human will comb through "all 316+ databases on the Internet to find the information you need." An e-mail response is promised within 48 hours.

Profits ahead?

"Headquarters" is a dorm room in Barlow Hall where Johnson lives with his roommate, Russell Miner, a computer science major, who is also a member of the project. The students use their own computers, which are connected to the Internet through URI's network. Other than using their student Internet accounts, the service has no connection to the university.

Johnson refers to his student partners as "employees," but they are really volunteers, since they haven't made any money. (They haven't spent any money either, he said.)

Their service is free, but Johnson said he thinks they can turn a profit by selling advertising on their Web site. The students are also hoping they can form an affiliation with the university. Johnson imagines that URI could offer independent study credits to students who work for HumanSearch.

The HumanSearch service does have competition. There are at least two other sites, (NetTracker at http://www.net-tracker.com/ and Farpoint at http://www.farpoint.net) that do personalized Internet searches as well.

However, those services aren't free -- they charge from $10 to $13 for a basic search and up to $60 an hour for a more extensive search.

'A bunch of smart kids'

Some of the questions submitted to HumanSearch have been tough, said Johnson. When they began the service, they advertised it in a number of different Internet discussion groups, claiming to "find ANYthing on the Internet."

One of those ads was posted to a discussion group for research scientists. "That was one of our biggest mistakes," said Johnson with a laugh.

One questioner asked something about how one arcane-sounding chemical would react with another. However, they were able to find an answer, he said, and the students are rarely completely stumped.

That's why Johnson has assembled students who have a variety of expertise.

"We're a bunch of smart kids," he said. "We have a wide knowledge base."

I tried HumanSearch (before I identified myself as a reporter) to see how well it worked. I asked what I figured would be relatively easy to find: What are the lyrics to My Favorite Things, the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein song Julie Andrews sang in the Sound of Music.

The day after I sent my query, HumanSearch replied. It repeated my question, and then it began, "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. . . ."

Okay, a tougher one. I asked if there were any sites that give statistics for endangered species, and specifically, how many leopards remain. (That question was actually was posed by a librarian on an unrelated Web page, so I figured it would be a challenge to answer.)

The reply, two days later, was not as on the mark. It listed a site by the World Wide Fund For Nature that had information about endangered species, and has a passage on the snow leopard. But the site had no specific numbers on just leopards.

The most bizarre question so far, said Johnson, is the one about the effects of second-hand smoke on the Daphnia Magna. After the students figured out that the Daphnia Magna is the water flea, they found five or six sites relating to that query -- some in a foreign language (the students aren't sure which one).

Students in the forefront

If the students' goals sound lofty, consider that several of the top Internet-related ventures were started by -- or with the help of -- students.

An undergraduate named Marc Andreesen, led a team of six students and staff at the University of Illinois's National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Champaign, Ill. In 1992, they developed the first graphical Web browser, called Mosaic. Andreesen went on to co-found Netscape Communications and his pioneering work was the basis for the widely-used Netscape Navigator browser.

Two Stanford University graduate students, David Filo, and Jerry Yang, started Yahoo!, a popular Internet index and search site (http://www.yahoo.com) from lists of their favorite places to go on the Internet.

And at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a professor, staff members and at least one student worked to develop Lycos (http://www.lycos.com), another popular Internet search engine. Lycos has since been spun off as its own company.

Johnson cites Lycos as an example of what could be possible if URI were to sponsor the HumanSearch project.

The students already have the support of at least one URI faculty member, who sees the HumanSearch project as an opportunity, not only for the students, but for the school as well.

"I think that URI can really move into the forefront by encouraging students to start their own business," said Mathilda Hills, an associate professor of English.

Hills has three of the students from the project -- Johnson, Miner and James Smith -- in her Shakespeare class. They told her of HumanSearch when she was showing offer her own Web page she uses for teaching.

Right from the start, she was impressed with the HumanSearch project and with the students, she said. Since then, she has applied for a grant to help upgrade their equipment.

She's not short on praise for the student entrepreneurs. "They are outstanding," she said. Hills said she thinks they are enthusiastic, bright, articulate and a model for other students.

"I think they'll make a go of it."

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.