Tool of the week: WolframAlpha
What is it? WolframAlpha bills itself as “a computational knowledge engine”.
It is like a search engine but where search engines “index web pages, then look for textual matches, then give you lists of links to follow”, WolframAlpha uses “built-in knowledge curated by human experts”.
According to the site, “it works by using its vast store of expert-level knowledge and algorithms to automatically answer questions, do analysis, and generate reports”.
In a video introducing the engine, Stephen Wolfram explains that it’s an “ambitious project that’s just getting started”, and encourages users to expect it to get better with age.
How is it of use to journalists? One of the reasons journalists turn to WolframAlpha rather than Google is to verify information.
For example, in this guide to verifying information from social media, Claire Wardle, director of development and integration at social news agency Storyful, says journalists there use WolframAlpha to ask certain questions, such as the weather in a certain place at a certain time, to verify images or video shared on social media.
In the above example I asked WolframAlpha for the weather in Damascus, Syria. You can also get cleverer and ask a question such as “what was the weather in Islamabad the day Osama bin Laden was killed?”
A word of warning: as with all statistics, do cross-check. For example, ask WolframAlpha how many journalists there are in the UK and it encourages you to ask the question around “reporters and correspondents” in the US.
WolframAlpha tells you there were 46,130 reporters and correspondents in the US in 2009 (which seems low, although Jon Slattery’s blog does report a 2012 figure of 40,600 “editors and reporters” in 2012 based on stats from the American Society of News Editors). It gives average salary ($34,360 in 2009) and the median wage yearly change (-$430) and presents you with graphs and charts.
Do you use WolframAlpha as a journalist? Any tips? Share yours in the comments section below.
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