Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha for Genealogists

It's only been three months since I wrote a post on Wolfram|Alpha, but I received an email from them Thursday announcing their work in preparing the site for the "Fall" -- explaining they released the site in early summer to give themselves time to work out bugs before the expected increased usage by returning students.

I thought I would review my discoveries in May, and see what changes there have been.

The Name Command

The input: "Name Smith" still results in similar demographic information on the surname Smith in the United States. W|A is still clueless about what the input "Surname Smith" is supposed to represent.

As W|A admits:
"Close to half the time that Wolfram|Alpha doesn’t give a result, it’s not because it doesn’t have the necessary knowledge, or can’t do the necessary computation. It’s because it doesn’t understand what’s being asked."
Place names

This may currently be the most useful input for genealogists. It doesn't provide much more than a location on a map, population, elevation, and current weather. Still, if you come across a new town where your ancestors lived, this at least situates the place in your mind.

I am still surprised by which towns are recognized, and which ones aren't.


1. Varalmas

Population 2801. This is the Hungarian name for the town my maternal grandfather was born in. The Hungarian name is no longer in use, however, W|A knew it was Almasu, Romania.

2. Truth or Consequences

Population 7,071. W/A assumes you mean the town in New Mexico. W|A has cast information on movies, but not television shows, so it doesn't realize you might mean something else.

3. Kyle, TX

Population 23,905. Understandably, I have to indicate the state for this input, otherwise it assumes I want information on the given name. My maternal great grandmother was born in Kyle.

4. Warka, Poland

Population 11,048. The town from which my Newmark ancestors originate. It is near Warsaw.

Not Recognized

1. Garfield, NM ; Maxwell, TX ; Berclair, TX

All towns my maternal grandmother's family lived in - though the population of these three towns range from 300-600, so it's not surprising that W|A doesn't know them. W|A is familiar with the counties in which these towns reside.

2. Losice, Poland

The town of Losice has a population of 7,252. However, the County of Losice has a population of 32,769. W|A is oblivious to both. A paternal great grandmother was born in Losice.

I actually was unaware how small the rural towns in Texas were until I looked them up via Google after not finding them on W|A.


My original test input was my birthday: January 21, 1969

Three months ago I was told no notable events occurred on that date - which is acceptable, as my birthday isn't considered notable yet. However, today they list several 'anniversaries' of events. For example the 176th anniversary of the beheading of King Louis XVI of France in 1793, or the 13th anniversary of the birth of actress Geena Davis. This is a good addition.

However, it still tells me that there are no holidays or major observances. It says this for the input: "January 21, 1969 Worldwide" as well. I still have to enter "January 21, 1969 Poland" to discover that it was Grandmother's Day there.

January 21 of every year is Grandmother's Day in Poland. January 22 is Grandfather's Day.

Date Conversion

W|A understands the input: Hebrew date for January 21, 1969
As well as the input: Muslim date for January 21, 1969

I'm not sure what other calendars it recognizes.

Source Citations

Wolfram still cites itself as the source for all of its data. ("Wolfram|Alpha Curated Data 2009") They still provide 'other resources' but with the disclaimer that these other resources aren't necessarily where they got their data. The link they originally provided to request more specifics about the source has been removed. Of course, three months ago the link led to a 404 error page, so no link is arguably better.

It's possible Wolfram|Alpha will never be a source one can cite for scholastic or professional purposes. Wikipedia, despite its naysayers, is arguably a better resource since the original source for content is often cited in the entries.

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