Can be used when one need facts apart from textual information

This edition of NetSpeak takes a re-look at the computational (answer) search engine WolframAlpha that celebrated its first-anniversary recently.

Despite the existence of a variety of alternative search tools, many netizens are still reluctant to look beyond the popular search services (like Google, Bing and the like). However, researchers, especially the ones who deal with quantitative data, cannot afford to ignore these alternative search services completely. One such service that is fast turning out to be significant is the search engine WolframAlpha.

In response to your query, mainstream search engines like Google present a list of web sites that contain the search string.

One limitation of these services is that they are not that good at providing direct answers to our queries. Though Google attempts to offer direct answers to certain type of queries (like ‘GDP India', ‘population India' and the like) its performance in this domain is not that impressive.

For instance, assume you are doing a research on the performance of India in Olympics over time. If you enter the string ‘Olympics India', Google will simply list out web pages containing these words and you will have to skim through each of them to filter out the relevant information.

Ideally, in response to this type of query (example: ‘Olympics India'), a year-wise table of medal tally would be more useful. This is exactly what WolframAlpha, the computational search engine, does.

WolframAlpha analyses the search string, does the necessary computations using its huge collection of facts database, derives new facts on the fly and then displays them.

Wolfram could be used in situations where we need facts apart from textual information. If you wish to obtain the ratio of Indian exports to imports just enter the string ‘India exports/imports'. The service computes the results in real-time and displays the ratio. In addition, it presents a historical graph too.

Now, if you are interested in the demographic shifts happening across the world, WolframAlpha could come in handy. For instance, median age of a country indicates youthfulness of a population. If the median age of a country is ‘25', this means half of its population is aged below 25 years. Now, if you wish to know the median age of a country, (example: India), just enter the string ‘median India' and WolframAlpha will immediately display the result along with other demographics.

And if you simply enter ‘median age', Wolfram will list out the median age of all countries. Just out of curiosity, this author tried the query ‘median age india china' and found India is almost ten years younger to China. Does this mean we have a demographic advantage? Development economists, this way!

Variety of tasks

Of course, this is just one of the several such tasks WolframAlpha can do. It can do a variety of tasks that include computing distance between two cities (example: ‘Trivandrum to Bangalore'), estimating socio-economic data (like GDP and trade statistics) and a wide range of scientific computations. In addition, if you have a data set and wish to do some analysis, no need to look for a statistical software — just use the various ‘Statistics and Data Analysis' commands supported by Wolfram (like Mean, ‘Linear fit' and Kurtosis).

Another notable feature of this search service is that it regularly beefs up its knowledgebase by adding new databases. Data on climate, global military data, worldwide health indicators data and the like are some of the databases recently added.

In case you wish to get a feel of the potential of Wolfram, check out the examples page at: http://www.wolframalpha.com/examples/. Now, for a query, if you wish to obtain the Google output also along with WolframAlpha search results, you may find the application Goofram (http://www.goofram.com/) helpful.

IM with Twitter friends

Many netizens are members of a variety of networks. You may be in a Gmail contact network, Facebook network, Twitter network and so on. IM clients like gTalk help us easily exchange real-time messages with buddies who are on-line. Now, if you are keen to have IM chats with your Twitter followers, the web based service t.imo.in (https://t.imo.im/) could come in handy. Once logged-in with your Twitter id, the service will list out all your Twitter friends (with green icon beside each of the members currently on-line). Besides helping you exchange real-time messages with your buddies, the service allows you to send updates too.

J. Murali can be contacted at: jmurali@gmail.com