Google Shows Wolfram Who’s The Alpha Dog

April 29, 2009
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I actually feel bad for Stephen Wolfram. After all the weeks of hype leading up to his public demonstration of Wolfram Alpha at Harvard this afternoon, Google upstaged him by releasing Google Public Data today. Catty? Perhaps, but in a very classy way. They just blogged about it and released it. No private demos. no fanfare–they just shipped it.

More importantly, they say:

The data we’re including in this first launch represents just a small fraction of all the interesting public data available on the web. There are statistics for prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers’ salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on. Reliable information about these kinds of things exists thanks to the hard work of data collectors gathering countless survey forms, and of careful statisticians estimating meaningful indicators that make hidden patterns of the world visible to the eye. All the data we’ve used in this first launch are produced and published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Division. They did the hard work! We just made the data a bit easier to find and use

I actually feel bad for Stephen Wolfram. After all the weeks of hype leading up to his public demonstration of Wolfram Alpha at Harvard this afternoon, Google upstaged him by releasing Google Public Data today. Catty? Perhaps, but in a very classy way. They just blogged about it and released it. No private demos. no fanfare–they just shipped it.

More importantly, they say:

The data we’re including in this first launch represents just a small fraction of all the interesting public data available on the web. There are statistics for prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers’ salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on. Reliable information about these kinds of things exists thanks to the hard work of data collectors gathering countless survey forms, and of careful statisticians estimating meaningful indicators that make hidden patterns of the world visible to the eye. All the data we’ve used in this first launch are produced and published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Division. They did the hard work! We just made the data a bit easier to find and use.

Clearly Google doesn’t put much stock in Wolfram Alpha’s proprietary collection of ten trillion curated facts. Moreover, Google is also using curated data–only that it’s data already freely available in the public domain. Perhaps Wolfram Alpha has collected broader data or built a more robust query parser, but now the onus will be on them to prove it–and to prove that the difference is meaningful to users. I can’t imagine that Wolfram is loving Google right now.

Ironically, one of the things that Google may have inadvertently proved is that this kind of question answering isn’t really that valuable to users. The queries I’ve seen posted or tried myself are a novelty, but at best they are a minimal time saver–a modest improvement on Google Calculator. As I pointed out in an earlier post about Wolfram Alpha, I think the NLP interface is wrong-headed, and that they–or anyone else trying to create more value from objective data–should be focusing on APIs to make it easier to integrate into other applications. But they don’t seem to be headed in that direction.

In any case, Google certainly wins this round. And the blogosphere is loving it.

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