Monday, March 14, 2011

Earthquake Challenge

The tragedies in Japan triggered by the earthquake last Friday may have been much worse if national preparedness for such events was not a way of life in that country.

Effective building construction and earthquake drills put many people in better circumstances than they would have otherwise experienced. While the death toll continues to rise and our thoughts go out to the people affected, we can also learn from this how better to be prepared ourselves.

Several years ago we created an Earthquake Challenge to test searchers' abilities to select the best keywords for finding this information:

Which toy demonstrates a construction principle that can reduce damage from an earthquake?

It's not a very difficult challenge since all the information needed is in the question

So what happens if you query the question "as is" (not eliminating any words)? The first two returns in Google are from Interestingly, a lot of Internet Search Challenge questions have been posted in Like most of them, the answer to this challenge is incorrect (sorry, Legos is not the name of the toy).
The next result is the original article I wrote introducing the Earthquake Challenge. It also does not contain the solution.

Down the page is a link to a patent page for a device that is "an object protection system." The page references a trampoline toy that is "a prior art." Patents have to disclose artifacts that may be considered similar to new inventions. This is not the answer.

Another result, this one from quotes the question verbatim and provides another incorrect answer: "Toys can be perfectly used as models that can reduce damage from earthquake." Too general. has the same incorrect answer to the question as Makes you wonder where gets their information.

What's going on?

With improvements to search engines I thought it would become easier and easier to locate a correct answer without having to decide which keywords to use. This is not yet the case.

Not until you start to eliminate extraneous keywords will the result start to show up.

If you are looking for an information fluency challenge that ties in with recent news, the earthquake challenge offers both. You can make the following points:
  • it is possible, using the right construction principles, to prevent damage from earthquakes;
  • just because you can find an answer to the question online doesn't mean the answer is correct (it takes fact-checking);
  • choosing a limited number of keywords rather than querying a whole question is a more powerful way to search;
  • if you use this challenge in a science class, you could explore why the principles seen modeled in the toy are effective in reducing damage caused by earthquake forces.
While I'm not the one responsible for the wrong answers that are posted online, I ask that you don't fix these. It makes a much better lesson with inaccurate information floating in the stream.

P.S. I changed the wording of the question today, so the challenge you see online differs from the question shown above.

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