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6/18/2009: Computable Knowledge with Wolfram|Alpha

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wolframalpha.com provides direct numerical answers to questions that can be computed using public data. 

For example, 'wired magazine circulation' returns the answer 715,000.

It's a neat idea, but in order to be useful, it needs almost limitless data - otherwise, most questions go unanswered, and the user is better off going straight to a conventional search engine. 

Here are a few example of simple tests I ran:

  • Population of Sunnyvale, California:  131,140
  • Population density of Sunnyvale, California:  no answer
  • latino population of sunnyvale california: no answer
  • city budget for sunnyvale, california:  no answer
  • sales tax rate for sunnyvale california:  9.25%
  • number of auto dealers in sunnyvale california:  no answer
  • number of city employees in sunnyvale california:  no answer
  • average household income in sunnyvale california:  no answer
  • area codes for sunnyvale, california:  no answer
  • zip codes for sunnyvale, california:  no answer

Wolfram|Alpha was announced with much fanfare, and the first month traffic was a very respectable 1,536,346 unique visitors, according to Compete.com.  However, unless users are able to find the answers they are looking for, I believe they will quicky become frustrated and abandon the site.