factual-logoThe team behind Factual, a website that’s launching its beta test today, has an ambitious goal — to become the central location where people share, find, and mash-up data.

Founder Gil Elbaz points to sites like the Open Directory Project and MusicBrainz, as promising examples of how to share and collaborate on data about the web and music, respectively, and there are other examples, particularly around government data. But Elbaz says he wants Factual to be more comprehensive, in the way that Sourceforge has become the primary repository for open source programming code. Elbaz wants his Los Angeles startup to be the repository for pretty much every data set you can think of, whether it’s about endocrinologists, video games, or California restaurants.

The data sets are stored as tables which can be viewed and edited on Factual, and also embedded on other websites. The site has hundreds of thousands of tables right now, Elbaz says. For example, I’ve embedded the table of popular books for the last 20 years below. If you see something wrong in the table, go ahead and edit it. You don’t even have to go back to the Factual site, as changes here will update the original data set. (Which doesn’t mean you can completely change the table at whim. When people dispute facts, Factual has an algorithm for weighing the different citations and reaching a “consensus,” and facts that seem more disputed have question marks next to them.)

The tables, however, can be a bit clunky when they have a lot of information, and are therefore not always easy to browse. Elbaz also hopes to see developers using Factual’s application programming interfaces (APIs) to build tools that bring useful information out of the data. As a sample application, Factual built Eatery Search, a way to search, filter, and map its restaurant data. Both embedding the tables and using the APIs is free, and Elbaz says he plans to keep it that way, while adding pay services eventually.

Freebase is a project with similar goals. Users can view and edit data on the site, and the data is also usable in other web services and applications. But Elbaz says Factual has a very different approach to open, structured data, and a visit to the two sites seems to bear this out — for starters, Freebase doesn’t offer Factual’s massive, embeddable tables.

Elbaz, who co-founded Applied Semantics and sold it to Google, has self-funded the company. Well-known technology commentator and investor Esther Dyson recently joined Factual’s advisory board.