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Can the Internet have a heart?

By Paul Lamb
October 1, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - What if there were a way for you to directly help the neediest families in your community and the world — or for help to find you, after a fire, flood or some personal tragedy — without the involvement of a government agency, nonprofit organization or church? What if assistance could flow seamlessly, based on information routinely collected and resources instantly deployed online?

It has been nearly a decade since Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee first talked about a “semantic,” or intelligent Web. His idea was that computers and the Internet might someday do more than simply process commands and searches. They might eventually have the capability to know what information we need and be able to deliver it without us first having to ask.

Since that time, the amount of information available online has risen dramatically — and, according to an IBM study, by 2010, the amount of digital information in the world will double every 11 hours. More strikingly, people are voluntarily supplying the Web with personal information through social networking, blogging and Internet transactions. A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project survey found that the majority of online adults (61%) do not feel compelled to limit the amount of information that can be found about them on the Web.

With information gathering and sharing becoming increasingly common and sophisticated, a more intelligent and proactive Web is close at hand. Advertising that targets us based on our publicly available online information, however troubling to some, is just the tip of the iceberg.

So, if we can have a Web with a brain, then why not a Web with a heart too — a kind of caring Web? No, the Internet will never replace our mothers, but it could be organized to put the information it collects to better use for the social good — ideally directing assistance and money toward problems in real time as needs arise.

The first step toward a caring Web involves people actively gathering information and making it available in socially beneficial ways. Examples of this abound. A people-powered effort was recently launched to provide real-time information and resources to those affected by hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

The next step involves the direct connection of people with shared interests and opportunities for mutual assistance. Web-based nonprofits like Kiva.org, which matches first-world social investors with poor entrepreneurs in the developing world, are making advances here. But in the case of Kiva and other online philanthropic matchmakers, connections are made through information that the nonprofits and their partner organizations must themselves gather and make available. A truly smart and caring Web would automatically connect donors and donees based on shared interests and aspirations, enabling trust-based interactions without any formal intermediaries at all. A Facebook page, for example, might be all that is needed.



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