June 20, 2005

Jigsaw puts together open collaborative database

Author: Tina Gasperson

The open source philosophy is popular enough that it is becoming a marketing cliche for some companies that don't have anything to do with software production. Take Jigsaw, for example -- not Jigsaw the open source Java Web server, but Jigsaw, the business contacts database.Jigsaw was created by a salesman for salespeople. A business contact database helps sellers and recruiters by providing them with current phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses for the people they want to be able to reach. Most business contact databases are proprietary. The information is warehoused, closely guarded, and available only by subscription, from sources such as Hoover's or Harris InfoSource.

Jigsaw, however, positions itself as a "classic open system," and says it is the first contact provider to introduce an open and collaborative model, "like Linux vs. Microsoft." According to marketing material, it is a "technology platform, a la eBay" where people can exchange the contact information they have for contact information they need. Customers also have the option of paying a monthly subscription instead of contributing information to the database.

What's the benefit of collaboration in this instance? "The open source link to Jigsaw was present from the moment the concept was conceived," says Jim Fowler, founder and CEO of Jigsaw.

As vice president of sales at Digital Impact he watched his sales reps spend huge amounts of time trying to find the right people to contact at target organizations. "We had bought data and it completely sucked. My thought was that the only way to keep business contact data fresh was to take a collaborative approach. What if there was a way to somehow get millions of sales people from all over the world working together to solve this data problem? What if everyone bought a few pieces of the puzzle and they were assembled for the good of the community? What if everyone had incentives to clean and maintain the data?"

When he went looking for venture capital to get the business started, Fowler says the VCs jumped on the open source thread. "[They] were fascinated by the open source approach to solving a very old and expensive problem," namely, the accuracy of the information in contact databases. But, Fowler says, the information collected by Jigsaw remains fresh because of the open nature of the system.

When a user inputs contact details for any one person, he gets 10 points. When another person accesses those details, it costs her five points. However, if she discovers that the contact information is incorrect and challenges the entry, she gains 10 points and the person who input the incorrect information loses 10 points.

"One of our early members described Jigsaw as 'Hoover's meets open source,'" Fowler says. "Of course, for the analogy to work, one must adopt a sales person's definition of open source, not a strict engineering interpretation. Sales people think of open source as free. This is why they describe Jigsaw as open source because they can get data for free by adding value to the system in the form of data, data cleansing, or referring other members."

What will the open source community think of Jigsaw's appropriation of its sobriquet? "If they don't use licensing compliant with the open source definition, it isn't open source. Period," says Bruce Perens, the creator of the term "open source software." "The risk they run is that people like me would go out of our way to tell the press that they are liars."

Fowler admits that Jigsaw isn't "pure" open source. "We are a collaborative database and the reason we get a lot of play in open source is that there is a lot similarity -- you collaboratively assemble a code base, and you collaboratively assemble a database."

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