Sunday, May 17, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha v Wikipedia

In the National Business Review there is an article which I believe was originally entitled WolframAlpha a Potential Wikipedia Killer (because that's what the link says) but the article is now entitled with a less sensational "WolframAlpha destined to be one of the web's top 10 sites."

The article admits that Wolfram|Alpha's forte is numbers, statistics, or financial data.
WolframAlpha happily draws on its rivals, which is helpful when responses to queries like Peter Jackson provide nothing but his age and occupation, then a link to the director's Wikipedia biography. Typing swine flu draws a pretty basic response from WolframAlpha - a table numbering infections by country; to find out more, you can click a supplied link to execute a "Web search" (which turns out to be a Google search).
I don't imagine Wolfram|Alpha's data on people is going to get too much more expansive. Victor Hugo's entry, for example, could at some point include a list of published works, but even then would be a pale shade of the information at Wikipedia.

And the source provided for "Peter Jackson" and "Victor Hugo"?
As much as professionals complain about the lack of source information on Wikipedia (a complaint that has grown more and more outdated recently as source information has been added) Wolfram|Alpha basically is citing itself as its own source. Following this circular citation is a list of other resources, which they follow with this statement:

When I follow that link at the bottom for requesting detailed information on sources, I get a 404 msg: "Sorry, Wolfram|Alpha could not find the page you asked for." Yes, this is opening weekend, and I am sure this is just one of several oversights. However, even when they correct this, emailing them for source information isn't what most researchers are going to want.

On the other hand, while we still have the circular citation, Wolfram|Alpha's entry on scientific queries such as Oxygen may provide the information a student is seeking in a clearer, more concise fashion than the Wikipedia entry on Oxygen. Where you go will depend upon what you want. (And whether or not you need a source that doesn't cite itself.)

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