Wolfram|Alpha’s Missing Feature: Libraries

John Timmer brings up my two biggest complaints about Wolfram|Alpha. The first is that it’s even harder to identify the source of information than it is in Wikipedia, the other is what happens when searches fail:

A bad Web search typically brings up results that help you refine your search terms; a bad Alpha search returns nothing, and it’s not clear that there’s an easy way to fix that.

Here’s a simple way: have Alpha fall back on library data. One example he offers, “global bioethanol production,” is perfect for both library reference and bibliographic collections.

Google Book Search offers a few promising hits for that query, as does Google Scholar. And if we imagine that search in the context of faceted collections, we’d be able to identify subjects the search phrase is associated with and offer additional access points. Add to that some crowdsourcing opportunities for users to expand the knowledge base by identifying an item or piece of text that answers their question and we’ll have a real competitor to Google.

bsuite Development

bstat has become bsuite. The name change reflects the fact that I want the plugin to do a lot more than track usage stats. One of the first features to enter testing here is the “related” section below. I’m calling it “bsuggestive,” but that may turn out to be too cute a name to tolerate for long. The results are based on the tags for the post, so it doesn’t work with old posts that haven’t been tagged, and it sometimes returns some weird matches, but it’s still alpha, so what can we ask for. Though, if you arrive at MaisonBisson via a search on one of the recognized search engines, the related posts will actually be based on the search terms used. The results in those cases seem to work better, which probably says a lot about the quality of my tagging efforts.

I hope to release a public beta of bsuite in the next couple weeks, but expect to see continued development of the bsuite features here.