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Notes from the Technology Trenches - An impressive "instant information service" software tool

By Roger V. Skalbeck, Published on October 14, 1999

Roger Skalbeck is the Electronic Initiatives Librarian at Howrey & Simon in Washington, D.C., and is the Web Master of the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.  Current work activities cover myriad aspects of electronic research resource evaluation, intranet content development, as well as research and technology training, all from a librarian's point of view. This column reflects the personal views of the author, which are not necessarily those of his employer or any other organization. This column, of course, is 100% free of any legal advice.


An impressive "instant information service" software tool

Do you turn to the Internet to look up quick words or terms? Do you ever find yourself browsing material on your computer, only to come across a term, phrase or company name for which you would like to get better context? If so, then the new software tool GuruNet is probably for you. Launched just last month, GuruNet is a Windows-based program that uses innovative linking technology to give you hypertext context links to almost any word on your screen. GuruNet is a small software program that runs alongside of other applications such as a word processor, Web browser, or email package. When you come across a word for which you want more context, such as a definition or thesaurus entry, you simply hold down the <ALT> key and click on the word of choice. GuruNet does the rest by checking your word against its online directories of definitions and user-entered terms.

A press release on their site calls GuruNet an instant information service, which indeed suffices to describe this new concept of a software-assisted quick reference tool. Once you have launched GuruNet, you can click on any term in almost any application on your Windows-based computer system. The software checks some of the context of a word that you use, and then presents you with the available entries from their various databases. The results can come as a dictionary definition, a thesaurus or encyclopedia entry and for named companies they also provide basic corporate financial information. Beyond that, the software gives you the option to run a search in several search engines as well as a handful of online bookstores.

At present, this program is still in beta, so there are sure to be some quirks and bugs, but the potential can certainly be recognized. For quick items to look up or verify, a simple click brings you mostly relevant and above all fast results. By enabling searching with some degree of context, GuruNet can recognize the difference between Thurgood Marshall, John Marshall and Marshall Field. By incorporating licensed and well edited content, GuruNet provides you with fairly authoritative basic level references. Within the definitions and similar entries in the GuruNet software, there are also hyperlinks that allow you to navigate between related words and concepts that underlie included definitions.

The host of licensed sources is modest but very practical at the beginning, covering the following reference works, licensed from Houghton Mifflin:

In addition to these Houghton Mifflin sources, GuruNet licensed the Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia from Columbia University Press, as well as some additional statistics and other sources. Once this software product becomes more stable and established, it seems plausible that this new tool would offer subject-area reference works for select audiences. To take examples from the legal and medical world, I could see a very good use for works such as Black’s Law Dictionary, Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, the Merck Manual or the Physician’s Desk Reference, just to name a few.

Depending on how the software is eventually sold or licensed, there could be a number of scenarios as for incorporating and pricing additional content . It seems quite possible that GuruNet could take the approach of search software businesses like Inktomi and Google, by licensing its technology to other companies. Another route would be to move towards co-branding and cross-licensing with content providers such as Houghton Mifflin or others. It already appears that they are an affiliate of some of the online bookstores, so there are at least incremental gains to be made with book purchasers who utilize that part of GuruNet's software.

With this beta software, it is not presently possible to search directly for phrases or explicit terms of art, though the service tends to recognize some grouped words as phrases. Also, GuruNet collocates close and adjoining terms, so that they can be browsed easily. As an example, if you were to click on the word chase, you would have very quick access to a short list of phrases that incorporate chase, including wild goose chase, Chase Manhattan, Chevy Chase (the city, not the actor) and cut to the chase. Bear in mind that the user maintained group of suggested Web sites is still in its infancy. This "Web links" option allows users to suggest their favorite sites for inclusion in GuruNet's proprietary database.

Over all, GuruNet is one of the most unique and useful software utilities that I have seen lately. I would say that it is the best of its kind, but I truly don’t know of anything comparable to this hybrid application.

MarketSpan brings their tracking service to the Internet; PACER news

In other news, MarketSpan, the creator of the successful CaseStream product for monitoring federal court filings, recently made its filing notification service available on the Internet. The CaseStream monitoring service was previously available only through the use of a proprietary software program, which required a monthly access fee of close to $300 for their basic-level services. Now the service is renamed CaseStream Alert!, and the monthly fee is no longer part of the pricing structure for the Internet-based notification service. Initial review of the new Internet-based monitoring of court filings reveals a sound and stable architecture, though more in-depth analysis is required in order to truly compare the features of the Internet-bases system with its software-based counterpart. With all its products now available on the Internet, MarketSpan is surely a company to watch if you monitor or research federal litigation filings.

Other aspects of MarketSpan’s service have been on the Internet for a few months, and LEXIS-NEXIS offers a selection of the MarketSpan data . The LEXIS database does not allow access to the actual docket entries, but it does provide civil cover sheet data on firms, judges, and causes of action that you can’t easily search in a combined fashion elsewhere. Remember, however, that defense firms are rarely, if ever, listed on the docket sheet when a complaint is initially filed, which means that a search will not identify recent suits involving particular defense counsel. In any event, furthermore, the researcher must understand that CaseStream is built upon the federal judiciary's own PACER docket system, and will reflect many of PACER's own inherent limitations, including timely and accurate updating by the various district court clerks' offices, as well as intermittent technical problems precluding delivery of the latest data from given courts, which CaseStream dutifully reports.

Related to the topic of shortcomings of PACER, the 11th Circuit court recently issued an opinion (Hollins v. Department of Corrections) involving the timeliness of an appeal, filed late because because the court's final order failed to appear in the PACER version of the docket. The court excused the late filing based on the reasonable reliance on PACER.

Though the PACER Service Center is not bringing revolutionary products to market, it is indeed coming to the Internet. As of October 1999, an index maintained by PACER identifies ten courts that provide PACER subscribers with Internet-based access to their own dockets, in addition to providing access to the national U.S. Party/Case Index. PACER thus appears to be addressing at least some of Carl Oppendahl's concerns from May, 1998 in his LLRX article, What's Wrong and What's Right With Pacer.

On a final lighthearted note, I came across a funny though fairly useless Web-based translation service recently. You may have already used the very practical AltaVista Translations tool, which allows you to type in text or a URL and select translation from one major European language to another (English to/from German, French, Portuguese, Italian or Spanish). For impractical though humorous situations, you can try The Dialectizer, which translates pages, excerpts or entire sites from English into Pig Latin, Swedish Chef, Cockney, Elmer Fudd and the like. There doesn’t appear to be a reverse translation service yet, so you can only convert conventional English into unconventional "dialects."

That’s it for this month. If there are any questions, comments or suggestions about this column, please feel free to send me an email.

Copyright © 1999 Roger V. Skalbeck. All Rights Reserved.