Social graph: The premium version of Wolfram Alpha automatically works out how to visualize data you provide, in this case mapping connections in an e-mail archive.
Shows like Numb3rs and CSI have popularized the idea of experts solving problems using data analysis. Now the “knowledge engine” Wolfram Alpha wants to help nonexperts try their hand at it.
Wolfram Alpha looks like a Web search engine but can answer queries such as “how old is President Obama?” or “heart disease risk 50-year-old male.” New features launching Wednesday allow users of a premium version to upload their own data to have Wolfram Alpha chart, visualize, and analyze it. The tools could appeal to those who feel swamped by spreadsheets, numbers, and lists, claims Stephen Wolfram, founder of the company behind the site, Wolfram Research. The premium version will cost $4.99 a month, or $2.99 a month for students.
Wolfram Alpha Premium can recognize certain types of data and even certain types of content inside a file. Uploading an archive from an e-mail mailbox will produce a diagram showing the connections between different senders (see image at top) or a chart showing your most frequent mail recipients. If a spreadsheet contains country or city names, Wolfram Alpha will automatically offer a shaded map (see page 2). It can even draw on its own data sources to enhance that visualization with information on population, GDP, or other factors. Users of the service can upload more than 60 different types of data, ranging from audio files and video to 3-D models.
At a briefing yesterday, Wolfram said his site’s new capabilities will democratize the use of data analysis. “It’s time to reduce the threshold for people doing things with data,” he said. “If there’s a question that can be answered by an expert using data that you have, then you can [now] get it automatically.”
Wolfram said he believed that many people who don’t normally tinker with data would do it if it were made easy enough. He drew an analogy with the early days of Google’s search engine. “People might have said, there are very few reference librarians in the world, why on earth would there be lots of people that want to find things on the Web? It became so easy to do those queries that very many people did it, and the same thing is happening with data here.”