Friday, July 2, 2010

"Content" Resource Discovery Platforms

Semantic or "intelligent" search tools, with controlled and connected data, are becoming more recognized and more desired for the specific or more sophisticated search request: for the user who wants to locate structured, meaningful, connected content, instead of having to cobble it together themselves from an endless mess of online searches. Here are a few tools you can use to help you move in the "smart search" direction.


A couple of weeks ago Primal launched it's new publishing platform, a kind of semantic mashup of web content aggregated from other sources.

Described by its founder as a form of "automated content manufacturing", the premises and goal of Primal is surprisingly easy and rather straight-forward: to build a web site of automated content based on a users thoughts and ideas. For example, in Primal Pages you can simply type in a word, such a Trees, and a webpage builder will guide the user through the process of developing and generating a web resource on their topic of interest, using content from sources like Wikipedia, Yahoo!, and Flickr.

Primal offers a few content and resource exploration tabs along with Pages. Storm provides you with the ability to generate semantic maps, or columns, of your ideas:

One obvious use for Primal in teaching is to use it to build a website of course resources / materials, and in this case you can it built collaboratively by both teacher and students.

Google Squared

Google Squared is Google's semantic search tool - Google's way of taking web content and adding a layer of structure so that it carries meaning beyond its content container, much like a database. In this case it extracts data from Web pages and presents them in search results as squares in an online spreadsheet. A search for "oak trees" will give you a list of results in columns by item name, image, description, family, genus, class, etc.

It's an amazing tool for comparative data searching, and its application in the classroom becomes quite apparent when you start thinking about the structure of the data you work with: try a search on something like "Canadian Provinces", or "Canadian Landscape Artists".

And Google has made this tool even smarter over the last year. You can add columns, create your own columns, store more data in a square, and save it to Google Spreadsheet (meaning you can also save it to Excel, if you so wish). If you have a classroom site on Google Sites you'll be able to integrate the results of this spreadsheet directly into your site, with sorting features, etc.: now that's a game changer when it comes to building resources for digital learning.

Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram Alpha, the "computational knowledge" engine turned one in mid-May, it was released back in 2009 with much hoopla and anticipation but has had mixed reviews during its first year. In truth, the mixed reviews stem from two realities:
  1. Data- they simply did not get access to all the data needed to build its knowledge domains: unlike semantic search tools like Primal and Google Squared, Wolfram Alpha is an actual database (or distributed database) running in the background
  2. Users - users were expecting it to behave like a search engine, but unlike regular web search engines, Wolfram computes data based on the structure of your question. The "stringing together of terms" search we've all become used to simply does not work with a controlled database search environment.
However, over the last year Wolfram Alpha has been adding more knowledge domains and building / programming with natural language queries. Wolfram Alpha also hopes to soon allow users to upload their own data, perform computations on this data, and use Wolfram Alpha to find correlations within Alpha's vast database. The teaching and classroom usage and application scenarios for this are immense.

Wolfram Alpha also provides some really nice user-end features to help us integrate the data we find into our own work. For example, if you do a search "Canada Geography" you get the following results table:

If you click on any of the data it will produce a pop-up which will let you copy the data as text or save it as an image:

And in its attempt to reach more users Wolfram Alpha has created community groups and targeted these groups with announcements, discussion boards, idea sharing, etc., and yes, there is a Wolfram Alpha Education Community.