Data map: Wolfram Alpha recognized that this data contained country names, and automatically generated a map. It draws on external data to make the shading proportionate to population, area, or other factors.
Lee Sherman, chief content officer at Visual.ly, a startup working on an automatic data visualizer of its own, says there is no doubt that there is a market for consumer-grade data tools. “The desire to visualize data in smart ways may have started in the scientific and academic communities, but it is now being applied in mainstream ways,” he says, claiming that infographics and visualizations are becoming more common on TV news and in other media like the New York Times. That suggests consumers would be interested in making their own, were it made easy enough, says Sherman. “It’s great that people like Wolfram Alpha are getting into this space.”
Wolfram Alpha launched in 2009 with claims that it would transform how people got information on everything from calorie counts to celebrity trivia, but it has barely changed most people’s habit of using Google to get all kinds of information. In response to a question from Technology Review, Wolfram said that Wolfram Alpha is already profitable, though, mostly thanks to deals like the one it struck with Apple to provide answers to Siri, the virtual assistant built into the latest iPhone.
Wolfram hinted that the technology being launched this week could lead to more such arrangements, but he didn’t provide details. One possibility would be to enhance traditional spreadsheet applications, such as Microsoft’s Excel. Giving such packages the ability to automatically analyze data would be a powerful upgrade.