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Wolfram Alpha, Unemployment, and the Future of Data

Friday, July 10, 2009 at 01:09 AM EDT

I’ve received a number of helpful responses to my post about the strengths and weaknesses of Google’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 Google’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, Wolfram’s vision is to curate all the world’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:

[Wolfram] Alpha was meant to compute answers rather than list web pages. It would consist of three elements, honed by hand …: a constantly expanding collection of data sets, an elaborate calculator, and a natural-language interface for queries.

That is certainly a grand vision. Let’s see how it does if I run the same test “unemployment rate United States” I used for Google:

This certainly brings a new perspective to economic data. My first reaction was to laugh at the idea of summarizing the data as “9 out of 125 workers were unemployed in 2008″ — that’s useless. On second thought, though, the statement that about 1 in 14 workers were unemployed is a useful way of interpreting the 7.2% unemployment rate. Oh, and as a card-carrying econo-geek, I have to give Wolfram credit for noting that this figure is an estimate.

Unfortunately, this response doesn’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 that’s what we get: an average for 2008. Sadly, the current rate is much higher, but users wouldn’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 “monthly” to the search. Here’s what you get:

Jackpot – almost. The good news is that it provides a graph of the monthly data, and, unlike Google, it uses the right series: the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate. And it provides a way to change the time period (that’s the “All” with arrow). And it provides some useful context.

But the data haven’t been updated to June yet, even though those data have been out for a week. And there’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 can’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 “monthly” data, for example). Oh, and given the promising results for “unemployment rate United States monthly”, the results for “unemployment rate United States annual” are downright mysterious.