Wolfram| Alpha Reviewed

Here is an impressive video (actually part 1 of 2) introduction to Wolfram | Alpha by Stephen Wolfram. 
It is an “computational knowledge engine” ( or answers engine) that was released 2 years ago on May 15, 2009 and was named the greatest innovation of 2009 by Popular Science
It differs from Google or a traditional search engine in that it does not deliver a list of links to documents or web pages, but rather it delivers computed answers from structured data.
As there are so many web sites that profess to answer our questions–whether Q&A sites like Answers.com and Quora or online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, I am intrigued by Wolfram Alpha’s computational knowledge niche. 
While the site is useful for getting everything from the GDP of France to the height of Mt. Hermont, I found the Wolfram Alpha site struggling to answer a set of basic test questions:
1) Total amount (also tried “size”) of federal deficit — No, don’t want a definition of a deficit. 
2) Number of U.S. embassies around the world — No, don’t want the U.S. population, density, language, etc. 
3) How many employees at the Department of State — No, don’t want a list of U.S. states.
4) Air craft carriers in U.S. Navy – 11  (okay, yay!, but no list of what these are and no hyperlink, boo!)
5) (let’s try this) What are the names of U.S. aircraft carriers – No, don’t want the number of passengers and goods transported in 2009.
6) Planned number of F-35 to be produced — No, don’t want the function line F-35.
7) Members of House of Representatives – Yes, 435.
8) Time in Alaska – 3:46 am, thanks. 
9) Age of International Space Station – launch November 20, 1998 (12.7 years ago) – informative.
10) Depth of Earth’s crust – 0-22 miles – not bad. 
11) Volume of Pacific Ocean – big number provided – good enough for me. 
12) Largest lottery winnings – No, not the movie, “The Lottery.”
While Wolfram Alpha is impressive in mathematical and scientific prowess, too often, the answers just did not compute for the everyday questions posed.  
As busy people juggling many different roles in life, it’s nice to actually get an answer back when you have a question, rather than have to start searching through thousands or links from the traditional search engine page.
But when instead of getting answers, you see messages that the search engine is “computing” and then coming back with null or void responses, we are left worse off then when we started. 
We shouldn’t have to think long and hard about what we can ask or how we to ask it; the search engine should be user-centric and we should be able to be ourselves.
As search engine users, I think we have the right to expect that our focus should be on how to apply the answers rather than on the engine itself or else something is wrong. 

>A Place for Answers

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First there was Wikipedia and now there is Quora.

On January 15, 2011, Wikipedia celebrated it’s 10 year birthday, and according to Bloomberg Businessweek, it now has more than 17 million entries (compared with only 120,000 for Encyclopedia Britannica) in 250 languages and is one of the most visited sites on the Internet. Moreover, the accuracy of the crowd-sourced Wikipedia has generally been found as good as traditional encyclopedias.

But despite the phenomenal growth of Wikipedia, a new site, Quora is finding a place for itself in online knowledge management, as one of the key question and answer (Q&A) destinations of the web (others being Answers.com, Yahoo Answers, and more–which were apparently found lacking by the founders of Quora).

According to Wired (May 2011), Quora is only 2 years old and already has about 200,000 people visiting the site each month. The approach of Quora is to create a searchable knowledge market based on merging verifiable facts with people’s personal experiences and observations or what Wired calls “the large expanse between…the purely objective [e.g. Wikipedia] and the purely subjective [e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.].”

Quora is looking to capture what it believes is the “Ninety percent of information people have [that] is still in their heads and not on the web.”

The site is also creating a community of people who participate in asking and answering questions, and can select to follow topics and people of interest, and vote on whether answers are helpful (“voted up”) or not to push answers up or down the page.

Similar to Wikipedia, answers can be “trimmed, corrected, or otherwise massaged by one of the rigorous volunteers” (of which their are now more than 100–Quora only has 18 employees). Answers are “written for the world, and for anyone who has that same question for the rest of time.” And even questions can get “extensively reworded.”

Wired asks is this just another popularity contest on the web or self-promotion for the self-proclaimed experts? One of the volunteers responds that “This isn’t about job searching. It’s not about raising money. Most of us who are heavy users can already do that without help. It’s a sense of sharing what we now, and it’s being part of a community.”

Of course, while critics may call them pedantic or petty, the Quora participants are on a mission to build a vital and timeless knowledge repository–“the modern-day equivalent to the Library of Alexandria”, so perhaps the people chic has to be balanced with information usability.

On January 21, 2011, Tech Crunch awarded Quora “best new startup for 2010.”

It will be interesting to see where this goes…the funny thing for me was that I ended looking up Quora up in Wikipedia. 🙂