Google Launches Visual Tools For Public Data


Google Labs’ experimental Public Data Explorer allows users to view and create charts based on public data

Google announced the launch of 8 March of Google Public Data Explorer, an experimental application offered through Google Labs.

The tool allows everyone from students to policy wonks to create a wide variety of charts from public data, such as fertility or unemployment rates.

For example, a user who swings by the Website can select “Explore the Data,” choose a data set such as “Unemployment in the U.S.,” and then click on various options to see a visual state-by-state comparison of unemployment to the national average.

A user could also create a colorful chart detailing life expectancy for various countries over the past few decades, and then embed that chart in a blog post.

 The Website taps into a number of public data sources, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, California Department of Education, Eurostat, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Google search already incorporates statistical data from the World Bank, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, and the U.S. Census Bureau—all of which is also being used in the Public Data Explorer application.

As part of the Public Data Explorer initiative, Google used search information to determine the types of public data most sought after by users.

”To help us better prioritize which data sets to include in our public data search feature, we’ve analysed anonymous search logs to find patterns in the kinds of searches people are doing, similar to the patterns you can find on Google Trends and Insights for Search,” Jurgen Schwarzler, a statistician with Google’s Public Data team, wrote in a 8 March post on the official Google blog. “Some public data providers have asked us to share what we’ve learned, so we decided to put together an approximate list of the 80 most popular data and statistics search topics.”

Those topics include school comparisons, unemployment, population, sales tax, salaries, exchange rates, health statistics and oil prices. Google examined those billions of queries from across a number of sources and filtered out spam and repeats in order to create the full public data list.

Google has drawn on its users’ search data to provide a view of a larger societal trend before. In April 2009, set up a Flu Trends site in an effort to track the spread of the H1N1 flu virus.

“We’ve found that there is a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms,” read an April 27 note on the Flu Trends site. “Some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening, and are therefore good indicators of flu activity. Our estimates, based on up-to-date aggregated Google search data, may indicate flu activity up to two weeks ahead of traditional flu surveillance systems.”

Microsoft’s Bing search engine also displays public data in charts and graphs through its partnership with Wolfram Alpha, a self-described “computational engine” Website that offers a definitive—often numerical—answer to queries in place of the traditional page of hyperlinked search results.

Typing in a phrase such as “U.S. military vs. UK” will return a statistical comparison of the two armies in a chart, whereas typing in a simpler phrase such as “death rates in the United States” will return a single data point.

Wolfram Alpha is the product of Stephen Wolfram, founder and CEO of Wolfram Research and creator of Mathematica, a computation platform the symbolic code of which forms the core code base of Wolfram Alpha. Google co-founder Sergey Brin reportedly interned with Wolfram before creating his own search-based startup.

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