Does Wolfram Alpha compute for government agencies?

Could government agencies take advantage of the computational power of Wolfram Alpha, the new knowledge engine launched last month?

“Wolfram Alpha combines a new approach for collating data with revolutionary technology for accessing and computing on that data,” said Samer Diab, chief operating officer at Wolfram Solutions, the consulting services arm of Wolfram Research.

“That power can be brought to bear in any place where government agencies want to access, correlate, distribute and compute on their data even more effectively,” he said.

For example, the Census Bureau or the Commerce Department might want to post large volumes of data on its Web site or the Wolfram Alpha channel, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration might want to use the engine to enhance weather-forecasting data.

Wolfram Alpha is the first step in a long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone, said Stephen Wolfram, co-founder and chief executive officer of Wolfram Research, a software development and scientific research company.

Wolfram Alpha draws on Wolfram’s work on Mathematica, a leading technical computing software platform, and algorithm discoveries published in his book “A New Kind of Science.”

With Wolfram Alpha, people can type questions or equations, and the engine uses built-in algorithms and a growing collection of data to find the answer.

Wolfram Alpha draws on multiple terabytes of curated data and synthesizes it into new combinations and presentations. The engine answers questions, solves equations, cross-references data types and projects future behaviors.

Wolfram has said that the engine is not meant to replace Google but instead is geared to answer complex questions and equations.

For example, if you ask for the gross domestic product of France, you get an answer of $2.546 trillion in U.S. dollars (2007 estimates), along with a graph tracing the country’s GDP history since the 1970s. Wolfram Alpha can break down the Information by economic properties, such as exchange rate, parity and local currency, and each category’s standing in world rankings.

You can explore the information by industry, such as agriculture or construction, by clicking More, and the engine displays the industries' contribution to the overall GDP as a percentage. Wolfram Alpha also lets users compare the GDPs of other countries.

Federal employees can directly access Wolfram Alpha's massive knowledge base, but agencies might also want to consider using it to:

  • Publish government data on their Web sites. Wolfram Research’s data curation and ability to deliver easy-to-query, visualized data would simplify that task, Diab said.
  • Publish government data through an additional online channel. Agencies seeking to deliver data wherever the public tries to find it can use Wolfram Alpha's Web site and eventually other Wolfram Alpha channels to publish their data.
  • Provide access to private data internally. Agency managers can use a private copy of Wolfram Alpha to keep staff research confidential, Diab said. Private installations can still have their own copies of Wolfram Alpha's public knowledge base, so employees can use private data in conjunction with public data to provide deeper insight, he added.
  • Combine and correlate data across agencies. Wolfram Alpha can collate and resolve incompatibilities or disparities in data from multiple sources.
  • Provide an application programming interface for integration with agencies' software systems. Agencies can use Wolfram Alpha’s API in combination with the company’s public knowledge base or one of the private data access approaches to integrate computational knowledge into their software systems.

Wolfram Alpha’s engine requires highly specialized servers and computer clusters, so the company worked with Dell and R Systems to customize a cloud computing solution with the appropriate operating processes and application workload, Wolfram Research officials said.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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