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(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.)
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
- 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
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.