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Sunday, 17th May 2009

Resource of the Week -- Fast Facts Anyone? A Brief Users Guide to Wolfram|Alpha

Resource of the Week -- Fast Facts Anyone? A Brief Users Guide to Wolfram|Alpha
By Gary Price, Chief/Founding Editor

As of 10:34 PM EDST on Friday, May 15, 2009 the site is live.

Since Wolfram|Alpha, (W|A) -- a new fact/answer engine (the company calls it a ďcomputational knowledge engineĒ) -- was preparing to go live over the weekend of May 15-17, we decided to give it a try. Thanks to the Wolfram team for the the early access. Hereís our brief report and hopefully some other useful information for future W|A users.

The Question Everyone Is Asking
NO, W|A is not a Google or any other general-purpose web engine killer . W|A works differently than Google, Yahoo, Live.com, Ask.com and other engines. If anything, W|A helps make some invisible -- i.e., "deep web" -- data useful by getting it out of the silos that are often difficult to find and access.

Google and those other engines crawl the web and find unstructured pages/content to add to their databases. Think of Google as an encyclopedia -- not the best analogy, I know, but it works here. Itís massive and has content on thousands and thousands of topics.

On the other hand, W|A searches organized data sets (time series, etc.), or creates them (using both electronic and print resources), and has curators (aka editors) massage and manage the structured data before it goes into the database. (Remember that most web engine databases are full of unstructured data.) Quality, currency, and accuracy are key. Not only do curators find new data sources, but they also watch for the data sets to be updated, at which point they update the content in the W|A database.

BTW, look for W|A to be adding new and updating old data on a regular basis. Hopefully, they'll have a page that documents the changes as new data enters the database and older data is updated.

If Google is an encyclopedia, than W|A is a ďmust haveĒ almanac. Itís also a ďmust haveĒ resource for use at the busy reference desk. Even though the database covers many areas, W|A is going to be gold for science and engineering information professionals. And remember -- it's free.

This from a CNN article:

Itís not a new Google. Itís not supposed to be. Itís very complimentary, in a way, to what search engines do, said Theodore Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research, the company behind W|A.

However, not every answer and domain of knowledge is in the W|A database. Founder Stephen Wolfram says in a video that the project is really just getting started. So we'll Just have to wait and see.

Wolfram says W|A consists of four pillars:

  1. Curated data (Finding data, keeping it current, etc.)
  2. Linguistical analysis (free form queries and the ability to process them)
  3. Algorithmic processing of the data
  4. Automatically presenting the results and making them useful

If W|A doesnít have the answer, youíll get a blank results page and/or perhaps some suggestions to retry your search.

This is why itís important to spend some time with the W|A database to get an idea of what it can and canít do. This is no different than learning a new print or electronic resource that you purchase from a book or database vendor. Trust us on this onem W|A is also fun to use -- especially if you're a fact junkie.

One interesting feature is that if you enter multiple search terms (e.g., surnames), the answer is returned in an easy-to-read comparison box.

Syntax
Since this a question-and-answer type of engine, natural language works best. For math-related queries, math symbols (+, -, %, etc.) work. The / sign works for dividing.

Why the Name Wolfram|Alpha?
Wolfram comes from the name of the company's founder, Dr. Stephen Wolfram. Wolfram's primary product, Mathematica, is used by tens of thousands of mathematicians and engineers.

Letís Search
The search box -- what you see on the W|A home page -- is nothing new. It looks and behaves like any other familiar search box. This early in the game, itís difficult to say what W|A's strengths and weaknesses are. As we pointed out above, every domain of knowledge is not yet in the database.

Here are a few queries the company suggests that new users try:

+ enter any date (e.g. a birth date)
July 4, 1776

+ enter any town (e.g. a home town)
New York

+ enter any two stocks
IBM Apple

+ enter any calculation
$250 + 15%
or
x+5=y

+ A name

+ Two Surnames

+ Pi

+ Currency Conversion

+ Carbon

+ Swiss Cheese

+ Buffalo Weather November 12, 1978

Visit this page to access even more examples of the types of searches W|A can handle.

Results Page
Again, your results page is based on your query, but in many cases youíll find lists, tables, graphs, and much more. Every results page is different, based on the content thatís been found in the W|A database.

This annotated results page does a good job of illustrating some of what you'll find on a W|A results page.

Perhaps the MOST important part of the search results box is found near the bottom of the page. Itís labeled ďsource information.Ē Click the link and youíll see the many sources W|A used to come up with the results. It will be interesting to see if/how major bibliographic citation styles handle W|A data.

Also, at the bottom of a results page, is a link that will turn the results page into a PDF file to print or download. Very useful.

If W|A doesn't work for you or you want to see results from another engine, look for the "Search the Web" box in the right rail. There you can select from Google, Yahoo, and Live.com and get results.

W|A also does its best to handle disambiguation. If you type "Apple," it will default to information about the computer company. But it also provide clickable links near the top of the page if what you really wanted was information about the fruit.

Remember
Researchers have different information needs, and they need the right tool at the right time to get the job done. Without the right tool, the end result will be frustration and aggravation. For many types of queries -- not all -- W|A will be a welcome addition. Itís not the solution, but it can be a valuable tool in the researcherís toolbox. Remember -- no research tool is perfect for all research questions, but W|A does a very good job of providing authoritative results to many type of queries.

But not all queries. For example, a search for The Beatles or Rolling Stones returns zilch. But other pop culture queries do generate results. A note says that the topic -- music performers -- like many other categories (including commercial products) are being reviewed. Stay tuned.

What's Missing?
Well, plenty. No site is perfect. That said, two items come to mind every time I visit the site.

  1. Spell-check (We've been told it's coming soon.)
  2. A mobile version. How great would it be to have a massive amount of factual information at your fingertips no matter where you are located?

Update: W|A looks o.k. on an iPhone. However, a native app would be even better.

Update 2: More Searches to Try:
+ Occupations: Actor

+ Find Words Matching a Pattern: Gol___

+ Word Definitions

+ Member Countries of an Organization: WHO

+ Movies: Gone with the Wind

+ People: Plato

+ Books: Gone With the Wind

+ Decipher Between 2 Dates: This Monday ||| Last Monday

+ Holidays: Pay Special Attention to How W|A Disamibugates the U.S. Holiday vs. other "Labor Days" Around the World.

+ Songs: Stairway to Heaven

+ Genealogical Tree: Great Uncle

+ Animals: Giraffe

+ Musical Notes
Note the "Listen To" Link


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