Wolfram|Alpha is described in Wikipedia as “an online service that answers factual queries directly by computing the answer from structured data“.

Comparing Web Sites

When I discovered that Wolfram|Alpha could be used to compare Web sites I thought it would be interested to compare the Web sites for Oxford and Cambridge Universities. From this I found that the www.ox.ac.uk Web site has 960,000 daily pages views and 230,000 daily visitors and the site is ranked 6,289th, whereas the figures for www.cam.ac.uk are 760,0000,d 260,000 and 6,269 respectively.

Wolfram Alpha statistics comparing three blogs

Table comparing three blog Web sites (from Wolfram|Alpha)

Closer to home I thoughts I’d compare the figures for this blog with those for the eFoundations blog provided by Andy Powell and Pete Johnston and Martin Weller’s EdTechie blog – of some interest in light of recent discussions about impact metrics for Social Web services. Here I find the amazing statistics that my blog has 150 million daily page views and 53 million daily visitors and is ranked 15th of all Web sites. The eFoundations blog has 16 million daily page views and 7.3 million daily visitors and is ranked 195th with the Ed Techie trailed way behind with 61,000 daily page views and 47,000 daily visitors and is ranked 53,872th.

Unbelievable, isn’t it? And, of course, wrong! The figures provided by Wolfram|Alpha, which they got from the Alexa.com service, seem to be based on the figures for the wordpress.com and typepad.com domains, with Martin Weller’s blog trailing as it is hosted on the typepad.co.uk domain.

So further analysis has given us a better understanding of how WolframAlpha uses the statistics provided by Alexa.com.  And the comparisons for Oxford and Cambridge Universities Web sites may be skewed bv the number of Web services in their domains.

And maybe other services which make use of such figures can be similarly skewed. Does this, I wonder, have any relevance to the metrics to measure online digital reputation described recently by Martin Weller? Perhaps my unexpectedly high ranking in a list of influencers in ‘distance learning’ is due to the service which hosts my blog?

Wolfram|Alpha’s Terms and Conditions

Interesting questions which we need to ask if we are to build up a better understanding of the digital world we’re living in, the tools that can help us in our tasks and the strengths and weaknesses of such tools.

But of interest – and perhaps concern – are the terms of use for the Wolfram!Alpha service .  It short it seems that, as my colleague Emma Tonkin recently pointed out to me there are “no guarantees, no under 18s, no organised repeated access, no mashups (don’t think about accessing this service in your software). Use must be personal, ad hoc (no organised groups of users please, so don’t think about teaching or training with it) and not for a professional reason unless you buy a licence for an unspecified price (curious amateurs only please). They reserve the right to assert IP rights over anything given as input to their site if they can think of any reason for doing so. Whilst they got much of their data for free by spidering sites, they will be deeply upset if you do the same.”

In addition is the requirement that “the results you get from Wolfram|Alpha are correctly attributed to Wolfram|Alpha itself“. The terms of use go on to say:

If you make results from Wolfram|Alpha available to anyone else, or incorporate those results into your own documents or presentations, you must include attribution indicating that the results and/or the presentation of the results came from Wolfram|Alpha. Some Wolfram|Alpha results include copyright statements or attributions linking the results to us or to third-party data providers, and you may not remove or obscure those attributions or copyright statements. Whenever possible, such attribution should take the form of a link to Wolfram|Alpha, either to the front page of the website or, better yet, to the specific query that generated the results you used.

So  if I ask Wolfram|Alpha what 1+1 is, if I published the result ‘2’ I must provide a link back to Wolfram|Alpha.  And if I ask “What were the dates of the second World War?” I need to provide a similar link before using the answer “1 September 1939 to 2 September 1945”.

What Should We Do?

What should we make of this? As students are encouraged to cite their sources, perhaps educational institutions should welcome the support they are getting from a commercial company? And maybe we should work with the manufacturers of calculators and require that any numerical calculations include details of the make of the calculator used. There might be sponsorship possibilities in doing this, as well as allowing the teachers to spot flaws in the answers which might be due to errors on the chips on the calculators (after all, we don’t have open source calculators  so, according to Peter Murray-Rust, we probably shouldn’t be using them to carry out open science.

I’m joking! But what should we do? Should we block access to Wolfram|Alpha from our firewalls? Should we simply ignore the terms, as we know that few people will bother reading them (although this story has been picked up on the  Grocklaw blog, Slashdot, CNet and The Register)? Or should we actively break them? After all Peter Murray-Rust recently argued that “We must reform the practice of copyright. We may be getting close to civil disobedience. Because unless we do we shall not control our future but be controlled by others.“.