What is Wolfram Alpha?

Wolfram Alpha has been popping up all over my online current awareness feeds and honestly the first thing that came to mind was it sounded like an evil computer created by the equally evil law firm Wolfram & Hart.  But since David Boreanz is now on the T.V. show Bones, I decided that it was unlikely that Wolfram Alpha was an elaborate marketing plot for another Joss Whedon show.

It turns out Wolfram Alpha is a “computational knowledge engine,” this is not to be confused with a regular ol’ search engine.  A search engine craws over the web filing and indexing data.  Wolfram Alpha relies upon the data inside it (entered by employees) that it scrutinizes and compares to draw conclusions about overlapping and intersecting details. 

It has been in development for five years and it is still very picky about search terms and how people search it.  It often misunderstands queries or search terms.  Wolfram Alpha prefers small simple search strings and it seems to do well with searches the produce specific quantifiable results. 

PCWorld does a good job explaining how somebody could use Wolfram Alpha to find overlapping and comparative information.

Then pick another term that will produce overlapping or comparative results. Try ‘California income’. Simple enough. Each search result includes a pop-up window that identifies its source, in case you ever want to dig into the origins of Wolfram Alpha’s information.

Now try another overlapping term, such as ‘California New York income’. Wolfram Alpha generates a simple table for comparing income in the two states. Now, you may begin to see its potential.

The site is admittedly young and is versed in only certain topics. Thus, a search for ‘San Francisco income’ comes up empty. If you cut a search back to its core and Wolfram Alpha still has nothing to offer, that entire topic might be missing from its current database. Visit more of the site’s examples to see whether a similar subject is available.

The folks over at the Dragonfly blog (Pacific Northwest Region NNLM’s blog) have begun to look and even post a link to PatrickMD.netwho wrote “Why You Shouldn’t Trust Wolfram|Alfa for Medicine.”  He tested it using several different medical health queries and he found that once you strayed from their examples Wolfram Alpha had problems finding the information.  Additionally Patrick discovered serious questions about the quality and how it interprets its data using W|A’s own example searches.

Their example of “Mayo Clinic, Olmsted Medical Center” is supposed to compare two large medical centers in Rochester, Minn. However, it actually compares the Mayo Clinic satellite in Jacksonville, FL, with Rochester. Even that apples-to-oranges comparison is hampered because there is no data in WA for Mayo in Jacksonville. Try finding data on Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami — the only Mount Sinai that WA admits to knowing is in New York City (and has no affiliation with the one in Miami.)

This kind of problem with non-clinical information me leery of trusting its other results especially clinical results  Patrick tests Wolfram Alpha further by looking at the risk of heart disease for a male nonsmoker.

WA says it calculates heart disease risk based on the Framingham study, but I get different results. (Assuming LDL 111, HDL 54, BP 120/80, nonsmoker, not diabetic.) Using the male score sheet from Wilson, Prediction of Coronary Heart Disease Using Risk Factor Categories. Circulation 1998 97 (18): 1837-1847., I get 6%, versus WA’s 4.6%.

As the score sheets just return whole numbers, WA is likely using the Framingham model which is discussed in the paper. However, even using that I get 5.4%, a solid 0.8% more than WA’s result. (for sticklers, my work is after the “more”.)

Based on Patrick’s testing, my testing (which is much more basic), and othersit seems that W|A is just in its infancy and has a very long way from being any sort of real tool for medical purposes.  Even if the data was correct within the system, Wolfram Alpha also has another large problem, it is too complicated to search.  You really have to search it in a very specific manner in order to get results.  That kind of a search just doesn’t fly with the regular public and many professionals.  Just look how hard it is for us to get our users to search using MeSH!  Look at the trends at tagging in libraries and the web, people want to use their own terms and their own search methods.  Wolfram Alpha fails at this type of searching completely.  It makes a poor ILS system look easy to use.

According to Wolfram Alpha’s FAQ page it is free to use for personal noncommerical use, subscriptions will be available in the future for enhanced versions and large scale commerical use.  Yet without inconsistant and unverified data and a extremley fussy searching feature, I don’t see many people wanting to pay to use it.  It is free and I can’t think of a reason to use it for my job as a librarian.

Who knows maybe in the far future we will have something like Star Trek’s computer system where we can just orally ask it a question and it will answer us back in our own language.

Facebook URLs and Institutions

For those of you who have personal Facebook accounts or who help maintain institutional accounts you probably already are aware that the URL to your home page is usually something like facebook.com/profile.php?id=684175895.  Who remembers that long number?  I had to look mine up on Facebook to get it.  Having your own personal URL as your online identity seems to be the direction other social networking sites are going.  MySpace, Twitter, and Google all are using personal URLs instead of ID numbers or some other ID code.  Facebook has now decided to enter the game.

Why should this matter to libraries and institutions? If your library or institution does not have a page on Facebook, well it doesn’t matter too much.  But if your library has put a lot of time and effort into creating and maintaining a Facebook presence and it is that project is a success then you might want to pay attention.  Now is the time for your library or institution to register and get a URL with your library or institution’s name.  Friday 6/12 at 12:00 am EST, Facebook will allow people to choose their own URL instead of the ID number. 

It will be interesting to see how things work.  Those of you who have trademark or protected names can email Facebook here, to avoid any issues or problems.

Pros and Cons of Conference Twitter

MLA is the only group to use Twitter at a conference.  Twitter has become the latest technology trend for online discussion at meetings and conferences.  There some who tweet to help keep those who can’t attend in real life informed. Others tweet to discuss amongst themselves and questions and comments about the event or speaker, almost as a side discussion.  Instead of whispering to their neighbor they tweet.

Recently a paper by Wolfgang Reinhardt, Martin Ebner, Gunter Beham, and Cristina Costa was presented at EduMedia Conferencein Salzburg, Austria. The paper,  “How People Are Using Twitter During Conferences”, shares the findings from surveys conducted at five conferences. 

The authors looked at the tweeting that occured before, during, and after the conference. 

Before the conference most Twitter activity is centered around announcements of workshops, presentations, reminders, and registration information.  Organizers used Twitter to build excitement and interest while attendees used Twitter to organize and share information and planning about the trip or conference.

During the conference organizers used Twitter to keep attendees updated on last minute changes, upload picture, link to blog entries.  Attendees Twitter use primarily driven by their personal Twitter style.  Some people used Twitter to take notes, others used it to ask questions, while others used it to discuss specific topics with other attendees.

After the conference organizers used Twitter most often to thank attendees, post reflections, promote upcoming conferences, and gather feedback.  Attendees used Twitter to post links to their blogs containing more indepth information. 

Most of the respondents had Twitter accoutns prior to the conference (95.%).  Of those that have Twitter accounts it appears that most people use their Twitter account for personal and professional activites and have just one account to do so.  Unfortunately, the article and Figure 2 are unclear exactly as to what percentage of people this really is. 

Those who actively Twittered during the conference reportedly sent between 11-20 messages per day and the main reason to tweet was to share resources, communicate with others, participate in parallel discussions, take notes, establish an online presence (I am not sure what that refers to) and pose questions.  Surprisingly posing questions was the least common reason for Twitters. 

Despite collecting data from five different  conferences the authors had a rather small sample size, 41 respondents.  I can’t tell the reason for the small number of respondents.  I don’t know whether the number of people Twittering a conference is still very small, whether the number of conference attendees was small, whether they had a poor survey return rate, or whether there other factors. It would be interesting if a study can be done where the sample size is much larger.

This year MLA worked to provide information to members during the annual meeting through the blog and Twitter.  Because Twitter is still a relatively new technology that many of our members were just beginning to use, I chose to focus our primary efforts on the blog.  Even though it was not our primary focus there were quite a few librarians on Twitter during the conference.  There were over 150 followers of MLA2009 and MLA2009 was following 137 people.  Several people tweeted a couple of sessions while others used Twitter to meet up with each other. 

Unfortunately I did not keep any statistics, conducted any studies or surveys on MLA membership usage of Twitter.  But unofficially, I think I can say that it was used and helpful to some of the membership.  It will be interesting what we see happens next year.

Meet the New MLA Board Members and President Elect

The MLA Connections blog has three nice posts introducing the new President-Elect Ruth Holst and the two new Board Members Cynthia Henderson and Ann McKibbon.

Don’t forget, if you are interested in reading about some of the things that the MLA Leaders are interested, discussing, or working on, the MLA Connections blog is a nice blog to keep your eye on.  While you have to register to leave a comment, I highly encourage doing so because it gives you the opportunity to discuss and interact with people who have unique insites in to the organization.  You can’t say that MLA isn’t listening if you aren’t speaking.

Old Posts Available

Ok now that MLA is done and I am back at home dealing with my normal hectic life, I can begin to fix my blog that kind of derailed when I moved it to WordPress. 

I have 5 years worth of blog posts and comments and thankfully they aren’t missing.  While you can’t see them right now on this current site they are still available.  If you want to browse or search for something you have to go to http://www.kraftylibrarian.com/old_index.html.  That covers everything from when I started blogging in June 2004 to April 23, 2009.  Searching for posts within Google will also work. 

I am in the process of getting those posts and adding them to WordPress.  However the WordPress one click easy migration from Blogger doesn’t work for me and my posts.  I suspect the reason why is that my Blogger posts were not actually hosted on Blogger they were hosted on the LISHost server.  So if anybody as any ideas as to how to move my Blogger posts so they actually show up within the WordPress site, please share them. 

I will be making a lot of changes these next few weeks so just bear with me while I get this thing up the way I want it.

MLA Conference Blog Survey

I am finally back from my post MLA vacation.  I have a lot of piles to go through personally and professionally but I wanted to post a link to the MLA Conference Blog Survey while things were still fresh in people’s minds.

MLA evaluates the meeting (please fill out their survey if it was sent to your email) and the programs to see how things went.  They are always interested in what was done well, what could have be done better, and suggestions for programming.   The blog is no different.  So we have created a short survey about the blog.  Your feedback is needed so that we can learn about what you want in a blog, what was helpful, what could have been done better and whether we were able to provide appropriate coverage of events at the meeting. 

Your feedback will help future bloggers. http://tinyurl.com/op84ed

The survey will be open until June 30th.  I plan on posting the results by the end of August.   I will forward any ideas and lessons learned to next year’s blog coordinators. 

Thank you

MLA Posts

Starting today (Thursday 5/14/09) I will only be posting on the MLA Official Blog for the Annual Meeting.  I will then resume posting on this blog starting June 1st after my vacation.

For those of you going to Hawaii, I hope to see you.  For those of you who can’t be with us at the meeting, I hope the posts from me and the other bloggers will help keep you up to date with the events and information at the meeting.

Citrix for iPhones is Hospital Usage Around the Corner?

Citrix has announcedthe immediate availability of  Citrix Receiver for iPhone.  According to The Unofficial Apple Weblog(TUAW) the “Citrix guys (were) running around the show floor at Macworld Expo this year, surreptitiously demoing an early build of this app to anyone who walked within range.”

So why is the iPhone Citrix app a big deal for hospitals?  Citrix is used at many U.S. Hospitals to provide a secure method for accessing computer information.  Most often people see it used when they are trying to access information on the hospital’s intranet or email from off campus.  At many hospitals Blackberry’s are the only mobile phones that are able to access email from off campus.  Many hospitals were very reluctant to allow iPhone users the same type of email access because of security concerns. 

I have an iPhone and I work at a hospital that currently does not allow iPhones to access hospital email due to security concerns.  I have been keeping an eye on the situation because I would like to access my work email from my phone.  (I really am not a work-a-holic I’m just one of those Gen-Xers who wants everything integrated and available when I want it.)  Unofficially I have noticed and large increase in doctors and medical students carrying iPhones instead of Blackberrys.  I have wondered if/when the number of iPhone doctors wanting email access would tip the IT people into considering them. 

Now that Citrix has a free iPhone app allowing users to access secure applications, it will be interesting to see how many hospitals will begin allowing access to resources using iPhones. I cross my fingers.

MLA 2009 Twitter Will Be Following Its Followers Soon

Right now the MLA 2009 has been rather quite.  There hasn’t been much discussion going on but people have been joining Twitter and clicking to “follow” MLA 2009.  Tonight MLA 2009 will begin the process of following all of its followers.  This might sound confusing but it really isn’t.  The easiest way to see and follow a conversation is for both parties to be following each other.  If only one person is following then the discussion is one way only. 

Krafty is following MLA 2009 but MLA 2009 has not yet chosen to follow Krafty. 
In this example Krafty can see everything MLA 2009 posts because she is following MLA 2009.  But MLA 2009 does not see anything Krafty posts because it is not following her. 

Therefore MLA 2009 will begin to “follow” all of its “followers” this evening.  That way anybody going to http://twitter.com/mla2009 will be able to see the discussion among the followers.

In order for this discussion to work don’t forget the following:

Remember to use the hastag #mla09 for anything related to the meeting.
If you want to discuss something on MLA 2009 Twitter feed you can type @mla2009 along with #mla09.

Don’t forget to read Keeping Up With Events at MLA for more information on Twitter. Any questions please make a comment.  Conference tweeting is still very new and we are all learning as we go.

Ethics and Publishing

Things have been kind of hectic for me lately.  I have been working on MLA’s Official Blog for the Annual Meeting and I recently moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress.  Add in my regular work and life events and I have been one busy person.  So I apologize if I am a little late addressing this recent news item, but I have been wanting to blog about it for some time.

It was recently discovered that Elsevier published six publications between 2000 and 2005 that were sponsored and by a drug company.  The publications were made to look like peer reviewed medical journals and the sponsorship behind the journals was not disclosed. 

According to a post by Bob Grant on The Scientist.com (free with free registration) Elsevier is conducting an “internal review.”  The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine is at the heart of the allegations.  The publications were paid for by Merck and the contents were basically a “compendium of reprinted scientific articles and one source reviews, most of which presented data favorable to Merck’s products.” 

According to an Elsevier spokesperson, the sponsored article publications were put out by the Australia office, bore the Excerpta Medica imprint from 2000-2005 and published under the titles; Australasian Journal of General Practice, the Australasian Journal of Neurology, the Australasian Journal of Cardiology, the Australasian Journal of Clinical Pharmacy, the Australasian Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine, and the Australasian Journal of Bone & Joint [Medicine].

This story is continually evolving.  Since TheScientist.com broke the story, op-ed columns and blogs have been weighing in on the topic.  Slashdot pointsto two interesting posts by librarian bloggers Bibliographic Wilderness and Laika’s MedLibLog.  Ben Goldacre wrote in The Guardian about information emerging in an Australian court case regarding a Merck and Vioxx case.  The information revealed email documentation of a “hit list” of doctors critical of the company or the drug.   According to The Guardian the hit list included words such as “neutralise”, “neutralised” and “discredit” next to the doctors’ names.  Goldacre reports that subsequent emails described other unethical tactics such as interfering with academic appointments and reducing funding.  Of course Elsevier is not the only publisher to have been accused of these type of tactics.  The Wall Street Journal Health Blog reported on JAMA’s actions last spring when two professors contacted JAMA regarding an article where the author may have had a possible conflict of interest and later then published a Rapid Response in BMJ regarding possible connections between the author of JAMA article and the drug company. 

All of this is very unsettling.  Now that the horse is out of the barn and Elsevier has admitted to publishing sponsored articles and falsely presenting them peer reviewed, what happens?  Are there any real repercussions?  What is to stop the next drug company from doing the same thing (only better so we don’t find out)? How do we get those junk articles out of the medical system.  They are already out there printed in the real world, how is the average physician who doesn’t read blogs going to know about them?  The mainstream media (Newsweek, CNN, MSNBC) and other news agencies have been curiously quite regarding this, yet I hear about the stupid swine flu every time I turn on the T.V.  If you think the average doctor reading the articles should just “know” you might be wrong.  According to testimony in a trial, George Jelinek, Australian physician and member of the World Association of Medical Editors, said the “average reader” could easily mistake the publication for “genuine” peer reviewed medical journal. 

So what happens next? Is there anyway to right the wrong?