Wolfram Alpha Tries to Tap into the Wiki Workforce

Audrey Watters at ReadWriteWeb has news of a new program at Wolfram Research. Their Volunteer Central site now exists to allow outside volunteers to contribute by fact finding and curating data. Their reward? A weak virtual currency, “data points”, which participants can display on their various social profiles, presumably as a proxy for reputation within the system. I say weak because there is no mention of being able to exchange it for anything of actual value.

I greatly admire Wolfram’s main goal of making information and knowledge computable. I have had the opportunity to use Mathematica and found it to be a ridiculously powerful (if equally expensive) tool for mathematical modeling and exploration. It is just this particular effort that leaves me cold. My qualm with it isn’t unique to Wolfram, far from it. Let me try to explain.

Those that know me, either personally or through my writing, are well aware that I am an advocate for collaborative models like open source software, Wikipedia, and peer media, like podcasting. In the models I support one critical aspect is that the value produced is equally accessible to all the volunteers. A Wikipedian who spends hundreds of hours can use the entire resulting text just as easily as one who only commits a matter of minutes. Where some commercial outfits working with open source have gotten into trouble in the community’s eyes is where they try to introduce gradients so that value flows unevenly. The hotly debated open core model is all about trying to allow open contributions to flow in but pinch off a premium reserve that is no longer freely accessible.

Maybe I am mistaken but I don’t see anything at Wolfram about volunteers gaining access to Alpha, the very definition of a premium service. In other words, their work flows into Wolfram and can only be accessed through a low flow, high cost spigot. I don’t see any mention of the ability to cash in those “data points” either. This is a tough distinction for me to make clear. I am not saying that Wolfram’s volunteers should be paid, per se. Rather I think to be truer to the spirit of volunteer-ism there should be a more equal share in the resulting value.

(I am aware that there is currently a free for non-commercial use web page for Alpha. Being able to query the system is not the same as sharing in its full value, the underlying data sets to which volunteers will be contributing. That would be somewhat like suggesting that accessing whatever site is being served from a running Apache web server is the same as having the Apache sources.)

Collect and Curate Data with Wolfram Alpha’s Volunteer Program, ReadWriteWeb