Know how long the Brooklyn Bridge is? The date of Andy Warhol’s death? The height of the Sears Tower?
If you’re using Cellphedia, a new cell-phone-based encyclopedia application, the answers to these and plenty of other random questions could be just a text message away.
Cellphedia is like Wikipedia, the online user-built and -maintained encyclopedia, on the go. Created as a thesis project by 33-year-old New York University Interactive Telecommunications Program graduate student Limor Garcia, Cellphedia lets users sign up to receive updates in one or more categories like architecture, music and technology. When a question is asked in one of those subjects, users receive a text message with the query.
The first answer — which could come in within minutes — is sent on to whoever asked the question, and is posted to the Cellphedia site as well. Subsequent answers are only sent to the person who asked the question. Users can rack up points as an incentive for being the first to answer questions.
“It takes a little step forward from the concept of Wikipedia, and what it does is not only provide the idea of definitions changing on a daily basis but basically by the minute,” Garcia said.
Garcia’s interest in knowledge acquisition comes as no surprise, given her upbringing. As a child, her father sold books, and her family’s home was always filled with reference books that she and her sisters would play with, searching for things. And when she asked her father a question, he’d try not to answer, she said. Rather, he’d send her to look it up.
The site, which is free to use except for text-messaging fees, has been live for a few weeks. While Garcia’s peers probably make up the majority of the 70 or so registered users, she’s gotten feedback about the site from as far away as Korea, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
A little more locally, site users have varied opinions on the benefits — and drawbacks — of using Cellphedia.
Derek Punsalan, 22, a University of Washington student, said he discovered the site last Monday while searching for mobile services that offer information via SMS. Punsalan signed up for the architecture, music, technology and “other” categories.
While he could use a mobile version of Wikipedia on his multimedia Sidekick device, Sidekick still requires a lot of reading and clicking on links, he said.
“It (Cellphedia) could be quicker, yeah, than having to stare at my small screen and scroll through tiny text,” Punsalan said.
At first, he said, he had some trouble setting up Cellphedia on his Sidekick, so he contacted Garcia for help and eventually got it working. He sent out a few questions and got answers within five to 10 minutes, which he checked for accuracy. They were correct, he said.
“There’s always the possibility of a person throwing out a bogus answer. You have to be a little cautious. I doubt the answers are getting screened before they’re sent back,” he said.
Indeed, they aren’t, though Garcia checks the site to see if answers are accurate. She’ll soon give people the ability to modify incorrect answers.
“I have to just figure out how to do that, because there are many issues about that,” she said.
Other users said they are concerned about the accuracy of Cellphedia as well.
Mohit SantRam, 30, a fellow Interactive Telecommunications Program student who heard about Cellphedia though a class he had with Garcia, thinks it’s a useful service, but “I think initially most people’s reaction with Cellphedia is they will be wary,” he said. But as with any online community where trust is important, the more accurate responses a person gives, the more he or she will be validated as a good source of information.
SantRam said he’s answered some music and tech questions, and thinks Cellphedia is a great way to get quick information.
“I think this is something that she’s going to really grow, because I know Limor pretty well. She’s pretty die-hard about when she works on a project — she really goes for it,” he said.
Jimmy Wales, president of the Wikimedia Foundation and founder of Wikipedia, said he’s seen Cellphedia but hasn’t used the site. He said he thinks Cellphedia sounds like a great idea, and that Wikipedia is actually in talks with Nokia about creating a Wikipedia client on Nokia cell phones.
That Cellphedia’s inspiration came from Wikipedia is flattering, as is the site’s use of cellular technology. “I’m always impressed with the things people can do with text messages,” he said.
by Rachel Metz