Wolfram Alpha: The Google of Data
Last week, a new tool called Wolfram Alpha debuted on the internet after a couple months of hype about it. At first, many claimed it was too hard to use or that it didn't do much, but I think this system needs a deeper look.
Although it looks like a search engine box, this web site's input box is more like the input line on Wolfram Research's most famous product, Mathamatica. I'll admit that I played with it for a couple minutes during a college Calculus course, but I couldn't make head nor tails of what to do with it either. However, I can see a future where Wolfram Alpha is used as much for finding useful data as Google is for finding important sources and documents. And I think that's what the folks at Wolfram Research want to do: get as much useful data and let people crunch it in as many ways as they like.
So what can we do? I put in my first name, "Daniel", and found that it's the 5th most popular name in the US as of 2007. It also includes a graph of approximate age of those named "Daniel", and wouldn't you know, my parents were just ahead of the years that "Daniel" was most popular. I can put in "GDP USA" to get some data on our nation's Gross Domestic Product, but why not put in something more interesting such as "GDP USA/Canada" to find that within the last decade our GDP was 14 times more than Canada's. That's probably more interesting. Want to know about the caffeine that gets you through the day? Here's tons of scientific data, molecular models and everything. And, of course, you can also plot graphs of data, like this one I did for the function "x^2 + 3x - 1". (I wonder if this will replace a graphing calculator on our phones in a couple years?) Also, I remember there being a heat wave in the middle of May 2001 and the dorm was really hot, so I entered "weather may 2001" and it picked up my current location and plotted the temperature and many other weather metrics. Sure enough, there were a couple 95+ degree days in there.
That's only scratching the surface of this new tool. There are examples of querying data for dozens and dozens of areas of research. One thing a friend wondered was where the system got all its data, and I found a "Source Info" link at the bottom of the page, but the "Primary Source" is usually "Wolfram curated data," which hopefully is considered more reliable to professors than Wikipedia.