June 5, 2009
V. excited by googlelookup, as described here. It basically allows you to perform multiple Google searches and manipulate the results, all within a Google spreadsheet.
A simple example – suppose you want to know the dates of birth of Fermat, Newton, Gauss, Cantor and Dedekind. You could always go to Google and perform five searches. But you could instead create a Google doc (like this one here) – in the columns, you enter the names (cells A2-A6) and in the header row (cell B1) you enter the search term you’re interested in – in this case, “Date of birth”.
Then by entering the GoogleLookup function into cell B2, you can perform a Google search which looks for the date of birth of the first name and plonks the result into cell B2. You enter the function like this:
Hey presto! The result (“Aug 17, 1601”) then appears in cell B2. But that’s just the start … if we now copy the formula from B2 into cells C2-E2, the dates of birth for all the other mathematicians then appear as well.
By clicking into a cell and hovering your mouse over a result, you can see the source of the data – it is Freebase.com for Fermat, for example.
Now Newton’s date of birth is given as 1938, so clearly this isn’t Sir Isaac – and indeed the data source is movies.piczo.com. A quick click reveals it is Bert Newton, an Australian actor who may be great in films but isn’t noted for his mastery of the calculus. So we amend the name from “Newton” to “Isaac Newton” and the date we’re after appears in cell B3. Learning from this, we add first name to all our group.
Now we’re cooking! Let’s find their place of birth and nationality. We just type “Birth place” into cell C1, “Nationality” into D1 and copy the contents of cell B2. Almost perfect – Cantor’s birthplace (St. Petersburg) is given as “St”. The placename was parsed up to the full stop in St. Petersburg and decided it had come to the end of a sentence. It should be possible to substitute alternative data sources, but I haven’t got that working yet.
Clearly, the main drawback is the data is only as accurate as the source, but it is easy to verify what source is being used. And the advantages, in terms of creating bulk searches, is tremendous for journalists as well as other researchers.