Using Data To Win Arguments, Lose Weight, and Get the Girl

After the staggering volley fired by Team Conan this week, I scrambled to find data to back what I assumed intuitively – that a large part of the outpouring we saw online was the result of a fortuitous overlap between the users of Facebook and Twitter and Conan’s natural audience. But I couldn’t find it. Found a variety of ratings data, and a slew of often conflicting information about who uses which online tools. But I couldn’t make my point.

That annoys me. I like to think that I’m a data guy. I like when I can compare two random, disparate data sets and think about how they overlap. I like things like the Timesrecent maps of Netflix rentals by zip code.

Therefore, I love WolframAlpha.

At first glance, the website is nearly incomprehensible. It really should just be this:

That little box actually works. It’s like Google for data. Try, for example, entering your birthdate, including year, the city where you were born, and the word “weather”. Watch what happens.

There isn’t data for every city, but the depth of what they have is remarkable. At the very moment I was born, for example, the temperature was just starting to creep up from about 72° on a cloudy, humid day.

Here’s another thing to try. In that same box above, write “life expectancy”, your gender, the word “born” and your birthdate. Add your country for more specificity.

According to the vast pool of data WolframAlpha aggregates, I’m supposed to live to be 77.3 years old. Or, also according to WolframAlpha, until October 6, 2052. Good to know.

These self-indulgences aside, WolframAlpha has a remarkable breadth of information – heavily mathematical and scientific, but by no means exclusively. Get the nutrition information for a S’more. Learn how much you can make pursuing an acting career. There’s information about your first name, and my last name. Track the goddamn space station.

Created by Mathematica developer Stephen Wolfram (watch his mind-boggling introductory video), WolframAlpha takes the information accessibility goals of Google one further – it aims to make it actually usable. Which is where WolframAlpha gets frustrating: one wants it to have more than it actually does. It doesn’t, I can tell you, have TV ratings.



This XKCD seems appropriate here.


WolframAlpha also doesn’t have the other holy grail of data collection: personal data. (The holy grail, that is, for at least one person.) Happily, other tools fill that void.

First, there’s the simple your.flowingdata, created by Nathan Yau, a UCLA PhD candidate fascinated by data visualization.

A Twitter-based tool, your.flowingdata allows you to send a direct message to his service which is then broken into components and aggregated. For example, I explored the service in an effort to explore how much caffeine I imbibe. Each time I had a coffee or soda, I’d DM @yfd using its simple syntax (“drank 1 coffee”). Waiting for me back at the website, graphs that undoubtedly demonstrated an inverse relationship to my attention span.

One of the more intriguing tools for logging and re-purposing personal data is an iPhone app – Data Logger, by Pachube. Extending the company’s existing platform (which is predicated on collecting information from static sensors and providing an interface to access it), the iPhone app allows a user to log anything. It, in essence, turns a person into an electronic sensor, whose data output can be repurposed for whatever data-crunching purposes can be imagined. (A companion iPhone application, PachubeMon, allows iPhone users to track their own and other feeds; Pachube’s API provides more options.)

There’s a catch: the application is in invitation-only beta, and a recent Boing Boing profile put those into high demand. (Though an email to the company sorted it out quickly for me.)

In forty years, we’ll be surrounded by smart dust of one form or another – billions of tiny sensors sharing information about nearly every aspect of our existence. Sites like Pachube will provide an interface for the terabytes of datapoints flooding wireless networks; systems like WolframAlpha will allow comparison across data types.

In forty years, even pop culture data analysis will be simple. By then, Conan’s fan base will be retired, shaking their fists at the foolish shenanigans of someone who hasn’t even been born yet.

Of course, the shaking is probably just a side effect of all that coffee.

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