Archive for April, 2009


Still no progress on open data visualization

I wrote a year ago that visualization services are stagnating. Other than yesterday’s announcements of Wolfram Alpha and public data in Google search, has there been any progress on online analytics and data visualization?


Swivel has completely refocused on business services, but is still in beta. A new competitor, Good Data, has appeared, but has nothing new to offer. Many Eyes is now powering visualizations for the New York Times, but there have been no significant new capabilities added to the service.

Currently my hopes are pinned on Wolfram Alpha. What will the next year bring?


Public data in Google search results

Google search now returns links to Google-generated data visualizations.

Currently, there are only two datasets available through this mechanism, “unemployment rate” and “population“. It’s unclear when we’ll see additional datasets offered through this channel.

The Google capability may be useful for quick viewing, but (so far) this is a toy:

* there’s no way to download the visualization, or the raw data;
* links are provided to data source information pages (US Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Dept), but not to the data displayed on the chart;
* no analytic capabilities.

Google’s decision to announce on the same day as the Alpha debut was a childish prank. I suspect that Nova Spivack has it right and Erick Schonfeld is off the mark – but Erick is correct that Wolfram’s service is not live yet and we can’t know for certain what has been achieved until we see it for real.


Wolfram Alpha is a big deal

After months with little activity in the open analysis area, today brings two major announcements. This post covers the first, and most significant: Wolfram Alpha, from the same company that produces the excellent Mathematica software.

Today Stephen Wolfram presented a preview of the upcoming Alpha product at Harvard’s Berkman Center (archived video to be available shortly). As had been rumored for weeks, the system is impressive. But it isn’t open to the public yet, and a firm launch date has not been announced.

Wolfram refers to Alpha as a “computational knowledge engine”, whatever that means.
Alpha acts like a search engine (you enter some text, and get back a page of results), but instead of finding information located elsewhere on the web, it delivers answers to factual questions. Examples demonstrated by Wolfram included “gdp of france”, “weather in lexington”, and tracking the orbit of the international space station. In all these cases, Alpha returned not only a current value but also time-series historical data presented graphically plus other relevant contextual data.

Alpha brings together a powerful combination of capabilities behind a simple web interface. Alpha gathers data from a large and growing set of external sources (including nearly-live financial and weather feeds); allows human curators to provide the semantic instructions for transforming the source data into a form that can be used by the engine; and uses custom software built on top of Mathematica to respond to queries across the entire repository.

If Alpha is truly as impressive as it looks in the demo, and it can handle the scalability challenge of public availability, then this is a huge advance on the state of online analytical tools. Having a mathematical engine available behind the scenes makes possible a much wider range of inquiry than the search-and-retrieve model provided today by search engines and data visualization services. Alpha’s capabilities won’t be duplicated quickly or easily by competitors.


‘Shanghai, New York and Mumbai’ – GapMinder video

Another excellent GapMinder analysis by Hans Rosling.

The data for this Flash chart is hosted on a public Google spreadsheet. Sources are cited, but unfortunately no links to the source data are provided.