Gonzaga University’s information trackers are the region’s foremost electronic detectives.
The main question they’re asking these days, though, is whether they will be in business a year from now.
After nearly three years of tracking down answers-for-hire, GU’s Regional Information Services (RIS) staff has until the end of May to break even.
Using computers and personal contacts, they chase down nearly any information a business or individual client wants.
Their trophies range from a rapid summary of the business climate in India to the year the first “learn-while-you-sleep” gizmo was sold.
Companies tracking down data are a growing part of the information industry. Gonzaga’s administrators, however, aren’t willing to wait forever for RIS to earn as much as it costs.
“We’ve been told it’s time we cover our costs,” said RIS Director David Buxton.
He declined to say what past deficits have been but noted that RIS must earn between $150,000 and $200,000 this year.
Regional Information Services is housed in the high-tech Foley Library on the GU campus, paid for in part with federal money.
The fees it charges clients run about $75 per hour plus connection costs RIS pays for using any of several nationwide databases. Companies get discounts if they sign extended contracts with GU.
“Our business grew those first two years, but we were also starting from nothing,” Buxton said.
Some growth occurred with low-end services - creating mailing lists or finding the address of anyone in the country. Buxton calls those the hamburger on RIS’ menu.
The meat and potatoes would be tracking and providing information to companies or entrepreneurs.
But only three big companies have become steady RIS users.
“We haven’t been successful reaching small businesses because our services are more expensive than they can afford,” Buxton said.
RIS searchers use different methods - from the Internet and computer databases to dusty library research.
For someone wanting articles or documents, a searcher plugs in key words such as “utility rates” or “Governor Lowry” and the database pops out lists of articles. Depending on what’s being sought, the articles vary from highly technical pieces to daily newspaper and magazine stories.
“They’ve given us good information fast and very efficiently,” said Tom Paine, government relations director for Washington Water Power Co.
Heading into a merger with a Nevadabased utility, WWP officials have used RIS to learn about the water-rights politics of that state.
What the RIS staff won’t do is spy, collect information through misrepresentation or reveal confidential information to others.
For instance, some firms use fraud to obtain credit-card histories. Getting that information involves saying the person wanting it works for a bank or credit company.
“Sometimes, we contact an agency and ask for information being sought by one of our clients,” Buxton said. “It’s happened they’ll ask who our client is. I’ve always said, ‘We can’t reveal that,’ and sometimes we get the information we want; sometimes we don’t.”
At times, a search comes down to whom one knows, he added.
A client looking at possible mineral development asked Buxton for a geologic map of a small island country. Buxton did a quick computer search and found nothing.
So he called an associate with the U.S. Geological Survey who pointed him to a database on the East Coast.
“A lot of what we do is networking. It’s not always pounding away at the computer,” Buxton said. “It’s knowing people.”
Another client wanted to know the year a product called the Linguaphone had been introduced.
What he wanted was purely personal, said Beth Pfeiffer, a RIS information specialist. She went through the main electronic databases and found nothing.
That was because the product - which supposedly helped sleeping people learn things such as a new language - had been sold only briefly in the 1920s.
Pfeiffer then headed for the librarian’s mainstay, the yellowing pages of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature.
In 15 minutes, she found articles describing the item and when it had come out.
“It’s like solving a mystery. Every search is different, and you just follow one lead and see where it goes,” said Pfeiffer, who worked as a research librarian at Microsoft before taking the GU job.
The immediate RIS goal is getting more revenue. “We had a retreat just last week to look at how to do that,” Buxton said.
One idea: Give first-time users a discount and hope they’ll fall in love with the results.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo