Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Computational Help Online

Search engines bring us data from around the world, which is fantastic. Sometimes there is just too much information to go through, which is less fantastic. Ultimately, though, selecting, interpreting and further processing the information brought to us by a search engine requires a human brain. There is help out there, too.

One novel approach to searching and data processing is called Wolfram|Alpha. It is not a search engine. Instead, it uses its own internal knowledge base to return answers to user questions. Their web site says t his about the project goals:
"We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries". 

For example, typing in "birth rate Massachusetts" returns a results page that shows you a number of things. Firstly, it tells you that "Massachusetts annual births" was used instead of the literal query. Secondly, the results for the query are displayed in a demographics table. Options to display additional information are given as well; in this case, age and gender, ethnicity, and education information is available with the click of a button. The numbers are also converted into hourly, daily, weekly, and monthly birth rates. Lastly, it is possible to view thorough source information for these numbers, and download the data as a .pdf file.

Sounds like there are a lot of possibilities! Wolfram|Alpha is free for personal noncommercial use.

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