The right tool for research

Sometimes you are looking for something on the internet that is too specific for generic tools like “Google” and “Bing” to actually solve. I was given one of those the other day: “List all US astronauts not born in Ohio”. There are four options for tacking questions like this:

  1. You keep trying multiple “general” searches trying to find a page that contains your answer by looking for specific words that might be on the list. Things like “Ohio astronaut Akers Altman” and find Wikipedia’s list of astronauts by state. Going directly to Wikipedia might also have worked, once you know what to look for.
  2. Go and search for specialized sources, like “astronaut history” which might take you to Nasa’s Astronaut Bios, where you can download a factsheet for all astronauts and build your list.
  3. Know your sources and look for specialized structured search sites, like FreeBase (a Google property now). And then build your search… Profession name is Astronaut AND Place of birth is contained by name is not Ohio AND Place of birth is contained by name is United State of America. Voila!
  4. Give up

The question on #3 is how precise is the answer. I’ll say that it’s ok… There are some US astronauts that don’t appear when you search for “Place of birth is contained by name is USA”. And the list of astronauts does contain some people that actually never made it to space, but it’s the closest “precise” source that I have found. Wolfram Alpha doesn’t have this information, nor does Factual or TrueKnowledge (which is overrun by ads right now – very sad).

The other question on #3 is how easy it was to build the query. Because I had played (and contributed) with FreeBase before, it wasn’t too hard. The “Place of birth is contained by” part was the hardest, but there weren’t too many other options. It was also a little slow, which made it a little frustrating. So thinking about people without a lot of background on data modeling and structured search, I don’t think they would be able to use it. So it’s not really there yet.

But it was fun!

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