Your correspondent was shocked to learn that 34% of his Facebook friends are married. Still in his 20s, he does not want to contemplate settling down quite yet. Knowing that 64% of his online friends are male does not help either—more so because only 57% of Facebook is comprised of women. When he lamented these facts (on Facebook of course) he was asked the obvious question: “Did you go through your friends list and count?”
Well, no. The number-crunching comes courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha, a sort of search engine for quantifiable facts. Begun in 2009 by Stephen Wolfram, a British scientist and entrepreneur, the online service serves up answers to queries by harnessing information from its own databases. It can compute things like the distance between the Earth and the Moon on your parents’ first Valentine dinner, for example. Its latest feature lets people analyse their Facebook account for free. Enumerating and plotting the vagaries of one’s online life is at times surprising. Your correspondent wouldn’t have thought he was many times more active in 2011 than this year, in terms of status updates, sharing links, photos, etc (chart below).
Since the service began a few weeks ago, more than 400,000 Facebook users have let Wolfram|Alpha examine their digital bits—an outpouring of interest that caught the firm by surprise, says Luc Barthelet, Wolfram|Alpha’s executive director. The company plans to expand into other “personal analytics” services. Mr Barthelet declined to be more specific, but it could well entail analysing users’ email patterns and other social media behaviour.
In February Wolfram|Alpha rolled out a Pro service. At $4.99 per month it gives people the ability to process their own data, or even download Wolfram|Alpha’s information on a query. Such information is potentially very useful as it comes from the service’s own curated databases. Thus, armed with data on homicides in African countries, for example, Wolfram|Alpha can generate various types of graphs (scatter plot, raw data plots, bivariate histograms) to help users understand their information better. It can create a heat map to visualise the data geographically. And it lets users overlay other data, such as GDP of the country, to make, in this case, a GDP-neutralised heat map.
The Wolfram|Alpha “answer engine” is based on Mathematica, a software program developed by Mr Wolfram that can perform elaborate calculations. After the site’s launch in 2009 it was criticised for being limited in what it could do: solve mathematical problems, answer some scientific questions, but nothing out of the ordinary. Since then it has expanded considerably. As it moves beyond computing the world into analysing the individual, it is providing fresh new ways to look at life.
Also published on economist.com.
Free image from here.