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I’ve already found the Wolfram Alpha killer: a librarian in Slough

May 19, 2009 3 Comments

Wolfram Alpha - the new search engine that gives access to systematic knowledge (ie it's a big database of curated facts) - has been variously hailed as a google and wikipedia killer.

I've found the Wolfram|Alpha killer - the UK Ask A Librarian site - the lottery-funded live-chat 'search engine' powered by real people.

I posed each two questions - see the details below.

Wolfram Alpha was much faster on one - but it couldn't answer the other. So I'm giving it to Ask a Librarian on points.

How Ask a Librarian works

You type in your question and you'll be connected via online chat to a librarian somewhere in the UK.

They'll then look up the answer on the internet and give you it (via chat panel on the left of your screen), recommending webpages with the answer - which appear in real time alongside the chat panel.

Ask a Librarian's Enquire service in action

Ask a Librarian's Enquire service in action

So who knows best? Let's find out ...

Factdown: Wolfram Alpha vs Ask a Librarian

Round one: What's the 5th biggest country?

This was one of Wolfram Alpha's suggested questions for new visitors - and it quickly gave Brazil by population and by area.

Wolfram Alpha's answer to the 5th biggest country

Wolfram Alpha's answer to the 5th biggest country

Here's what Ask a Librarian had to say (minus a couple of exchanges of pleasantries):

Me: Which is the 5th largest country? I wanted to know by area and by population. Thanks.
[Librarian]: Hi Malcolm, welcome to Enquire.
Me: Hi. Can you help me find the 5th largest country?
[Librarian]: I'll take a look for you.
[Librarian]: By area the 5th largest is Brazil: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_and_outlying_territories_by_area - I'm looking for the population.
Me: Thank you.
[Librarian]: It appears to be Brazil:  http://www.bookrags.com/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population but I will check with another site.
[Librarian]: Yes, it does seem to be Brazil: http://www.mongabay.com/igapo/world_statistics_by_pop.htm

So, agreement there but Wolfram Alpha was much quicker.

Round 2: How old is London?

Wolfram Alpha couldn't answer: "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input".

Wolfram Alpha can't tell me how old London is

Wolfram Alpha can't tell me how old London is

Ask a Librarian had this to say:

Me How old is London?
[Librarian]: A librarian has joined the session.
Me: Hi, I realise it's a bit of a vague question! the answer could be when it was first called London - or when the first settlement was on the current site.
[Librarian]: First evidence of settlement found in prehistoric times, though roman London the first well documented settlement named Londinium. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_London
Me: Great. Do you know of any other references other than Wikipedia?
[Librarian]: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/English/Collections/Prehistoric1700/Prehistoric.htm is a very good site.
[Librarian]: http://www.britannia.com/history/londonhistory/ american but a good overview.
[Librarian]: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/place.aspx?region=1 late entry! page down for links

A knockout blow for Ask a Librarian.

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