peoplepad.JPGIn 1998, a young New England lawyer frustrated with the difficulty of library research decided to scan and index every book in the world.

Troy Williams moved to Texas, raised $150 million, and started a company called Questia, and convinced hundreds of publishers to give Questia digital copyrights. To date, the company has somewhere north of 67,000 books and 1.5 million articles online.

But Williams, who became an expert on many of the Internet’s nascent technologies, moved late last year to start his next project, a semantic web application called PeoplePad.

With PeoplePad, he hopes to create an online database that will connect large parts of the Internet and, like Wikipedia, help put even more information online.

Williams is mum on the areas he will focus on, but examples could be “people,” “geographical information” or “news.” Around the areas it will focus on, PeoplePad will establish and track repositories of knowledge that include both current data and older material socked away in places like the Google Archive and Wayback Machine.

Take, for example, what PeoplePad might do with an existing news article. It might give the reader a wealth of extra information on details like people, companies or places referenced within it. “My goal is to make the way you find that information seamless, easy, almost boring — without any fanfare, and designed really well,” he told us.

Companies like Inform Technologies (covered here) are already trying to do that. However, Williams wants both to link massive amounts of data to any particular term or piece of information, and to make it simple for anyone to modify or add data to it.

Think of it as an overlay for the Internet, allowing people to see any piece of information as part of a constellation of related data without making any effort to search, or do research, or even have any particular technical aptitude. “Our hope is to be a site everyone uses — my mother, my dentist, high school kids, whoever,” he told me.

Metaweb (coverage here), which is working on indexing the entire Internet, hasn’t spent any time trying to attract ordinary people to use it, instead looking to be a repository of information for other companies and organizations. Twine, another semantic web startup we’ve covered, has its eye on business users with at least a modicum of technical ability.

Williams says he’s so far turned down offers of funding for PeoplePad, but intends to take financing later this year once a prototype is complete. A public testing version is planned by year’s end, he said.

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