Vorsr.sk [sk] is a tool for visual exploration of Slovakia's business registry. It treats the information as one big social network, grabbing the newest data live from the current registry database and delivering up-to-date connections of searched for individuals. The business registry contains information about all Slovak people who own a business, own part of one or are board members.
Following is an interview with Slovakian Michal Habala, who together with a colleague came up with the idea for Vorsr.sk in August 2008, using JUNG, an open-source Java project by a couple of students from the University of California.
Global Voices (GV): How much time did it take to launch Vorsr.sk before it went live? What were people's first reactions?
Michal Habala (MH): At the beginning we thought that it would be ready in a few weeks/months but when we saw the data quality in the business registry we decided to go deeper and implement data cleansing algorithms and other functionality. This and the fact that it is not a commercial project (it was always balanced between all our free time activities) meant that the beta version for public testing was released 18 months after we started. But I think it was worth it; the reactions are always very good, as we can present some results, which you would never be able to see in any other relevant project or tool.
GV: How did the idea change from day one? What are your users saying and how are you adapting to their needs?
MH: This tool is in never-ending development driven basically by our users. Every time we get an impulse from our users to add some functionality, we begin to analyze this request and try to make it happen.
GV: What are your plans for the near and distant future?
MH: The tool is evolving in time and now we are introducing a Czech version (beta version here) and probably in two months we are looking to introduce a Czechoslovak version (from both countries). This could be the first European project which provides information from joint business registries to the public (and it’s completely free).
GV: What is/was your main obstacle while developing and running the project?
MH: Probably poor data quality in the business registry. We tried to make this tool without downloading the data to our databases, so in Slovak it runs as an online wrapper of the business registry. This approach has its positives (like no problem with request limits and always up to date data) but recently we discovered that this approach has some limitations, which we want to overcome. This is mainly the data loading time and stability of the business registry, which is continuously getting worse. Even though we like the concept of using government services as data sources for our tool, we have to face the fact that these services have a long way to go before they can be used in such way.
GV: Was there anyone angry at you after you launched this project?
MH: I think that people still don’t get it what they can do with this tool. Most of our users just look at their own business and do not go deeper. Partly it’s our fault because we don’t pay much attention to the promotion of results yet. But we are going to change that and embed some introductory (tutorial) videos and results-showing videos in our home page. Then I can imagine that some business people would be annoyed that we used their case to present our tool. But in general I think there’s nothing to be worried about, it’s all public data already accessible through the public business registry.
GV: What will be new in the beta version?
MH: The beta version is completely new inside. There was some major object and internal structure redesign, which will improve stability, the speed of the applet and will allow us to easily integrate other countries and add other sources of information. Also some GUI [Graphical User Interface] redesign and new graph analyzing algorithms. So it will be quite new in the end, but we are talking about a wait of probably one year.
GV: I find this tool currently hard to use – there is lots of Java, it's quite slow in my browser. Don’t you lose some of your audience because of these issues?
MH: I know that Java is source consuming and therefore the whole tool is slower in browsers with large amounts of data loaded, but this tool was never meant to be used this way. It was designed to be a small applet for visualizing small graphs online loaded from the business registry. When we saw that big business cases are really big and you have to load very large graphs to see the context, we decided to make a real tool from it. The first step to overcome the speed issue was enabling the install of it as a desktop application, which runs faster. Another step is to release a new version with optimized algorithms (i.e. the beta version mentioned earlier). But at the end, it will never be a click-and-see component for everyone, it’s a tool and when a user wants to use it he/she has to accept its demands.
GV: What are the promotional plans? Do media and journalists use it?
MH: We don’t have information as to whether any media use it. I think that there are some media people among our users but that’s all. I have to say that we underestimated the value of promotion. We are mainly programmers but we have to face the fact that every project needs a promotion plan.
GV: Is there any business person who wants to sponsor you?
MH: This goes hand in hand with the question before I think. No promotion means no sponsor. On the other hand we are getting promo support from the Fair-play Alliance in Slovak Republic and now also from people of the Kohovolit.eu portal in the Czech Republic for which we are very thankful.
Thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview.