Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha - Numbers and More!

Wolfram|Alpha is an amazing project that seeks "to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone." Of course, it has not achieved that ambitious goal yet. But it has done a surprising amount and made it easily available, free, to any web user.

It's not a search engine -- when you enter a search, it doesn't go out and scour the web for you. Instead, it goes to its own datasets. The basic information is "curated" -- that is, screened by someone who's paying attention. Sources may be published studies, government reports, or reference works.

So what sort of data is in there? It's amazingly diverse.
  • Want to know how many calories in your latte? Type in 12 oz latte, and it comes back with all the nutritional information for a Starbucks latte: 132 calories (and 302 mg calcium, 8.5 g protein, 13 g sugar, etc.) What about nonfat milk? Type in 12 oz latte skim milk, and now the answer is 98 calories (345 mg calcium, 9.2 g protein, 13 g sugar).

  • Want some information about murder in Seattle? Type in homicide seattle, and in instants you see that a 2007 estimate was 4.1 crimes per 100,000 people per year, and you see a graph showing the rate dropping over the last 20 years. Click on "Source Information" to learn that Wolfram|Alpha got its data from the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2009.

  • What if you'd like to compare homicide rates in Seattle with some other cities? Type in homicide seattle san francisco houston baltimore:
    Seattle,Washington | 4.1 crimes/100000 persons/yr
    San Francisco,California | 13.6 crimes/100000 persons/yr
    Houston,Texas | 16.2 crimes/100000 persons/yr
    Baltimore,Maryland | 45.2 crimes/100000 persons/yr
    (Data isn't available if you try to do this for sydney, tokyo, and amsterdam. But try again in a month -- they're building their datasets all the time.)

  • Pondering job offers in different cities? Try this: cost of living seattle spokane portland:
    Seattle, Washington | 124 (Q3 2009)
    Spokane, Washington | 93.3 (Q3 2009)
    Portland, Oregon | 116 (Q3 2009)
  • Want to figure out how much monthly loan payments will be? Type in loan payment -- and then manipulate the balance, the term, and the interest rate.
    loan amount | $ 80000 (US dollars)
    loan period | 10 years
    annual percentage rate | 4%
    payment interval | monthly
    monthly payment | $ 809.96
    number of payments | 120
    time to first payment | 1 month
    effective interest rate | 4.074%
    (assuming the last payment is due the last day of the loan period)

  • The possibilities are, well, not endless -- but vast. Try:
    • us gdp
    • microsoft stock
    • quadratic equation
    • uranium
Does it do everything? No, not by a long shot. I tried a number of searches that didn't come up with anything -- looking for death penalty statistics, immigration statistics, the number of marriages that end in divorce, the number of abortions compared to the number of live births. So there's still a use for all the other sources we know and use. But, boy, when Wolfram|Alpha works, it's really, really slick.

Wolfram|Alpha is a site that can be used by very serious number-crunchers (engineers, scientists, economists, et al.). It can also be used by people who don't know an integral from an integer. The Wolfram|Alpha blog even features a video of a fourth grade teacher talking about how she uses it with her students!

Wolfram|Alpha's public release was in May (I'll confess it took me six months to hear about it, despite its coverage in blogs and other sources) and it will only get better. It's definitely a site to watch. Speaking of watching: take a look at Stephen Wolfram's 13-minute video introducing it. It's dazzling.

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