Jennifer Zaino Contributor

Metaweb, the creators of Freebase — billed as “an open, shared database of the world’s knowledge” — has hired a new director of community. A big part of her role will be to grow and renew community involvement to support that mission.

“We have this solid backend, lovely web site, an API that is pretty stable, so the platform is there,” says Kirrly Robert, recently transplanted from Australia to California to take on the challenge. “Phase two, which we are now entering, is to build up the data and community. This is a database of the world’s information — we want to have everything in there.”

“Shoveling it in there takes a lot of people. We can’t do that as a company on our own — we need the world to join in with us,” Robert says.

As Freebase prepares to enter the beta stage, the small, tight-knit team that has built Metaweb has to move from being heads-down working on the platform to “opening it up and talking to the whole world,” she says. “That’s changed the focus and importance of the community aspect of things.”

“Bootstrapping” is the word Robert uses to describe her goals. For every piece of data Freebase puts into its database, it gets one piece of data back. That’s nice, but she’s looking for the snowball effect of crowd involvement.

“What can we do that causes five people to get enthused to do something else that causes 25 people to get enthused. So, instead of us shoveling data in, we want to organize data mobs around topics that may be interesting or controversial or have some personal applicability to people. Then if you can get a member of the community to edit one topic, next they are clicking to another. It’s like when three hours pass while you’re on Wikipedia and how did you get there. We want to trigger that behavior and get the community to support each other to build a rolling ball of enthusiasm.”

How so? For starters, Robert sees that the community is already broad as well as overlapping, extending from those who just casually drop by to find a fact (such as how Franklin Delano Roosevelt died) to those who develop against the Freebase API, to those who want to share use the platform to build a community around their domain-specific interests (be it vintage motorcycles or tofu recipes), to those who are Creative Commons fans and the idea that information should be free.

“Figuring out what all those different interests are and finding out what is important to each group and keeping them all happy is what it’s all about,” she says. That’s going to draw both on her soft skills to be the advocate for the communities, which in some cases means staying in touch with their needs by not taking advantage of her own access to some tools and technologies that she has as a member of the staff, and on her solid open source software technical background to contend with the hairy and technical discussions around data modeling and other issues.

One of her current projects to help drive involvement is working with Freebase’s user interface designer on improving usability for discussion forums — such as providing greater visibility into what others are engaged in and join in those discussions — as well as taking some documentation that’s been behind the wall at Metaweb and making it publicly accessible, something that’s up to now been a back-burner issue as the company built out the platform.

“My real theme at the moment and over the next couple of months is openness,” reflecting the company’s move in recent months to clarify its terms of service, including making all its content available under the Creative Commons Attribution License and also accommodating other licenses such as the GNU Free Documentation License. “We used to have something in terms of service that said you couldn’t use the FreebaseAPI to replicate our site and compete,” notes Robert. “We said that was silly. Go ahead and do it, but just attribute it to us and link back.”

The company now also offers data dumps, free downloadable files containing all of the data in Freebase. Robert says the main reason this hadn’t been available before wasn’t philosophical — just the result of the company having been so busy creating the platform that it hadn’t gotten around to that yet.

“Even if we go away or there’s a zombie apocalypse, if any of those things happen, those data sets that people have downloaded are reusable and redistributable,” she says. “The Freebase data is not going away.”

Robert says she loves it when she finds out about people she’s never heard of doing stuff with Freebase, such as Free Influencer, which weighs the influence-network of a person based on data drawn from Freebase about who they’ve influenced. (Walt Whitman, for example, is rated at an influence weight of 1231.5 kg).

“The more of that, the more it means that this is spreading. It is getting out there into the real world and not just the little corner we live in,” she says.