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WEB REVIEW: Even more ways to find facts at your fingertips

December 4, 2010

Now that you can get online pretty much anywhere and the devices have evolved to be carried in your pocket, it seems obvious that we would be using the Internet a lot more.

And yet, I still find myself occasionally surprised at how easy it is to access almost anything you’re looking for, from anywhere, at any time of day. A couple of examples to illustrate:

I regularly eat lunch with our team, and our conversations can often be described as fringe (at best) and even arcane (most often.) Even the most boring or obscure topics merit at least a moment or two of conversation, and those conversations are nearly always followed by someone looking something up. The history of searches on my iPhone Google App (http://google.com) includes entries like “US Presidents by height,” “Indiana open container law,” and “Porsche annual sales.”

A topic might start with someone saying, “I wonder...” and is normally quickly followed by, “You don’t have to wonder anymore.” There is little wonderment left— nearly any answer to any question is readily available.

This has extended beyond conversation into daily tasks. Now when I shop, which I’ve done a bit of in the last week or so, I use an application on my phone called ShopSavvy (http://shopsavvy.mobi/). When I find a product I’m thinking of buying in a store, I use a camera on the phone to scan the bar code. ShopSavvy then responds with useful little things like product reviews and prices for the item, both at local stores and online. If I decide to buy it later, I can add it to a list and check prices at any point.

If you have more of a raw data/computational nature about you, there is probably no better stop than WolframAlpha (http://wolframalpha.com). When you get there, you’ll see a standard search field allowing you to enter what you’re looking for. But the information that comes back isn’t search results in the sense you might expect from Google or Bing, but answers you might expect from using a reference book of some sort. For instance, if I enter my birthday (11/02/1966), I learn that it was 44 years, 29 days ago. I’ll also see who else was born on that day and the basic sunrise, sunset and moon phase data.

You might want to know something like “cost of living in Indianapolis.” Answer: 88.8 where 100 is the national average. You’ll also learn that groceries account for 12.95 percent of total expenses—which is in line with our ranking—but transportation is 11.9 percent, which is way above the national average. (A nugget that should help make the case for mass transit.)

You might also decide to just click on Indianapolis in the results to get an overview of the city. You’ll instantly receive population, cost of living, unemployment, median home prices, crime rates, current weather, nicknames and nearby cities. Because WolframAlpha is intended to be a computational engine, it’s not great at answering queries like “height of U.S. presidents,” but it’s outstanding at finding things like the height of all U.S. residents (which, to no surprise, falls into a nice bell curve, like all good data is apparently supposed to).

One last resource we often use is provided by Mint and its users. Maybe you’re one of them. Since I first mentioned Mint a couple of years ago, I’ve heard that many IBJ readers have been using it. (You can read that original review here: http://tinyurl.com/rb-mint.)

Mint is now aggregating financial transaction information for more than 4 million people, making it one of the largest sources of trending data on the economy and how people are spending their money. It’s likely, of course, that the average Mint user spends more than the norm, but the data is still compelling. With the recent release of Mint Data (http://data.mint.com/), anyone can access this information to get their own view of what’s going on.

To get a feel for this, visit the site and enter Indianapolis, Indiana. Where WolframAlpha presents compiled data from statistical analysis and references, Mint Data responds with nearly real time spending habits. You can see the average amount of purchases made here. Or see that the average monthly expenses are just over $4,000, including a strong spike last December when the shopping category nearly reached $8,000. You might also be interested to know that Steak & Shake, Penn Station and Jimmy John’s are the most “popular” restaurants in the city as determined by a “unique visitor count by location and spending category,” while St. Elmo’s tops the list in average amount spent.

If you’re using Mint, you can use this information as a baseline to see how your spending and savings habits compare with other locals and the national average. All of which is intended to make you a better consumer overall.•

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Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

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