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Data Analysis for the People

Wolfram Alpha can now analyze data you provide, so you can do things like map out your e-mail relationships.
February 7, 2012

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.”

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.

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