Wolfram Alpha, Unemployment, and the Future of Data
Friday, July 10, 2009 at 01:09 AM EDT
Iâ€™ve received a number of helpful responses to my post about the strengths and weaknesses of Googleâ€™s efforts to transform data on the web. Reader DD, for example, reminded me that I ought to run the same test on Wolfram Alpha, which I briefly mentioned in my post on Googleâ€™s antitrust troubles.
Wolfram Alpha is devoting enormous resources to the problem of data and computation on the web. As described in a fascinating article in Technology Review, Wolframâ€™s vision is to curate all the worldâ€™s data. Not just find and link to it, but have a human think about how best to report it and how to connect it to relevant calculation and visualization techniques. In short:
That is certainly a grand vision. Letâ€™s see how it does if I run the same test â€œunemployment rate United Statesâ€ I used for Google:
Unfortunately, this response doesnâ€™t answer my question, which is to find out what the unemployment rate is doing now. Wolfram has chosen to default to annual figures, so thatâ€™s what we get: an average for 2008. Sadly, the current rate is much higher, but users wouldnâ€™t learn that if they stopped at this step.
It took me a few tries, but I eventually realized that you can get monthly data by adding the word â€œmonthlyâ€ to the search. Hereâ€™s what you get:
But the data havenâ€™t been updated to June yet, even though those data have been out for a week. And thereâ€™s no way to track these data back to their original sources, something Google does very well. (Further down the page, there is a link to sources, but you canâ€™t tell which one provided these data.)
Bottom line: Maybe Wolfram Alpha will solve the data problem instead of Google. Or, even better, in addition to Google. As a data consumer, I welcome the competition. But Wolfram should update the data quicker and should help users figure out the right syntax (perhaps a link on the original results saying â€œmonthlyâ€ data, for example). Oh, and given the promising results for â€œunemployment rate United States monthlyâ€, the results for â€œunemployment rate United States annualâ€ are downright mysterious.
This article originally appeared on Donald Marron.