Douwe Osinga's Blog: Write your own travel guide

Monday, December 27, 2004

Back when I was still running Oberon Medialab, one of the problems was that I always came up with new ideas, usually losing interest long before they came to fruitation. One of the reasons I started this site was to quickly build these kind of ideas into something real before I found something else. The so called hacks. However, there was one idea that came up a long time ago that actually made it into reality: World66, an open source travel guide.

More than five years ago, I was chatting with my brother in John's Café, the local backpackers joint in Kashgar about how Lonely Planet was starting to miss the point. Yes they had great coverage and reliability, but they could hardly cover everything, nor were they very up-to-date. Couldn't the World Wide Web help? Lonely Planet receives lots of travelers reports, but they print only stuff once they have sent a researcher to check the report out. What if we would have a website with a global travel guide where everybody could just update anything?

So we brainstormed a little while taking a bus over the Turugart pass into Kyrgyzstan. Back home we wrote down some designs, but it never came to anything. Then in 1999 I took the Trans-Siberia Express with my newly wed wife as a honeymoon and this long train ride gave me among other things a lot of time to think about traveling and travel guides.

So back home in typical hubris programmer mood, I took two weeks off and created World66, or at least a first version. The content we imported from a great number of free sources and as it turned out some of the non-free sources. Then we started mailing people with websites that seemed to indicate an interest in travel. Did they want to help us write our new travel guide? Some did, some didn't, but after a while it started to work a little. The content grew and around it something of a community.

These were of course the wild days of the bubble. There was First Wednesday and First Tuesday, two events taking place on the first Wednesday and Tuesday of the months where potential Internet entrepreneurs could meet up with angel investors and venture capitalists. More over, they had free beer. So we went there and usually talked with each other about wild plans. But there was this one evening when everybody I knew had left and I happened to talk to a guy who could make some calls, get us some financing. Bad days had come to World66.

A lot of powerpoint presentations and with exponential graphs filled spreadsheets later and we had a real company, seven people working and my brother as CEO and a few hundred thousand in the bank. The catch? We were no longer truly open. The financer guys, you see, wanted a model and the best we could come up with (this was when banner ads already had gone out of fashion) was content syndication, i.e. other portals could rent our content. But that meant of course that we could no longer give it away for free at the same time.

But things usually get better after a while. The bubble burst, World66 as a company almost went bankrupt and Hans-Peter, my brother and me succeeded in buying out the financer and then slowly converted the company back to the true path of open source.

Right now World66 is operating under a Creative Commons License, which basically says you can use our content for whatever you want, be it personal or commercial. Of course the idea is that you enter your own travel content and pictures under the same license, so everybody profits.

Recently we added two new features, that should make it easier to access and use our information: cell phone guides and PDFs. The cell phone guides are small screen, xhtml versions of our content that can be browsed from most modern cell phones. One cool feature is that they guess based on your ip-number from which country you're surfing and start the guide there. So as soon as you leave the airplane (and soon maybe even before), you can start getting info.

The PDF versions of our travel guide go a little bit against my gut feeling. They allow you to download and print a number of our better travel guides and take them with you on your journey. Of course, I'd prefer a completely electronic version, but you can't deny that people like paper. Hopefully people will annotate the texts and then take the trouble to go online when they're back and update the content.