Friday, July 30, 2010

Information at Your Fingertips - WolframAlpha

Some time ago I (and many others) discovered a new kind of information site on the web, The function of this site was difficult to describe. It seemed to fit in the same category as indexed information like Wikipedia but it was much more.

Today I (and no doubt millions of others) received an eMail from the WolframAlpha team announcing the availability on their site of WolframAlpha "Widgets". Widgets, in the world of computer programmers are tiny programs that can either stand on their own or be incorporated easily into existing programs.

After playing with Widgets already existing on WolframAlpha for a while and building two WolframAlpha widgets of my own I finally understand and can explain the function provided by the WolframAlpha website and by it's new Widgets. Any data administrator and most programmers understand the difference between stored data and derived data. Most would imply the difference by calling the "derived" variety "information" rather than data. The implication here is that there is some added value to the information over and above the data actually stored in a database or dictionary or encyclopedia. The value added stems from manipulation of the stored data according to programmed rules and/or relationships implied by the structure of the database itself. In simpler terms, it is data plus intelligence.

Once you have either located a widget you like or have built one yourself, Wolfram makes it easy to "lift" the code and include it in your own blog or website. I created two Widgets:

this one shows you the effect of inflation on the value of the US dollar:

while this one allows you to locate (on a map and/or globe) where a particular country, state, city, lake, mountain etc is:

Give them a try and see how they work.

As you can see I included the two widgets right in this blog entry. I had to work a very little bit harder to figure out how to include the widgets in the text of this single entry instead of where my blogger template was set up but it turned out to be as simple as a cut and paste.

In the five or so hours I have been playing with this (on and off) 42 more gadgets have been created, stored and indexed on WolframAlpha by people all over the world. Any of them can be incorporated in a website or blog by anyone else, as I have done here with my own creations. This is Web 2.0 at its creative best!