Compare50 brings a taste of big data's potential to the masses

Free site let users easily combine data from various government and financial sites to yield useful information

We've heard all about the benefits of big data and the promise of being able to pull together data from disparate, far-flung sources into a single interface from which users can quickly and easily slice, dice, and combine any which way to yield useful, digestible information. Plenty of IT professionals and power users are already reaping the advantages of big data at their respective organizations, but for the average end-user, truly appreciating big data's promise and beauty may be difficult.

I was thus pleasantly surprised to discover a newly launched website called Compare50, which provides a perfect example of how big data can bring knowledge and insights not only to trained data scientist or uber geeks, but to anyone who knows how to use a browser.

Compare50 is a completely free service from nonprofit Next10 that allows you to easily generate basic graphs comparing two or more U.S. states based on a slew of metrics, such as unemployment, poverty rates, GDP, housing prices, and more. The data comes from various troves of government data (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. Census Bureau) and other sources (including WiserTrade and PwC Money Trade).

Compare50 brings a taste of big data's potential to the masses

Much of the data you can tap via Compare50 is available for public consumption via various government agency websites. The difference is that Compare50 actually makes it easy to pull up the data you want from multiple sources at once and in a meaningful way. As someone who writes from time to time about U.S. unemployment rates, I speak from personal experience when I say that using the BLS site to cull useful info is an exercise in frustration.

Suppose you want to see which region in the United States historically boasts the highest level of innovation, based on yearly exports, venture capital investments, or patent filings. You would call up the Innovation chart, choose the states you're interested in, the time frame (in this case, from 1997 to 2011), and the data you want to compare. Click Submit. A simple line graph appears, comparing the select regions' results.

With a click, I could see how where the most venture capital investments have been made around the country over the past 14 years. Hovering over a point on a line reveals the specific data for a particular year. Turns out it's consistently Silicon Valley. Is anyone surprised? But it's interesting to see what proportion of VC investments in California are made specifically in Silicon Valley, as well as how it compares to such regions as the New York Metro area or the entire state of Texas.

Similar data dissection is possible to compare historical employment rates, income distribution, housing figures, and other metrics by state and region.

Importantly, the site is in beta, and though I didn't experience any technical issues, I did note that some of the data ends at 2011. Next10 said it will add the most recent data in the near future.

Also, the site is limited in functionality in that you can't compare metrics within a state; say, you can't generate a graph showing both historical unemployment rates and poverty rates in California. That kind of capability could yield Freakanomics-style revelations.

That's not a knock -- I'm impressed by what Next10 has done here in creating a powerful, free big data tool that's cleanly designed and easy to use. I see limitless potential for the organization to continue adding more data sources (graduation rates, sector-specific jobs information, government spending) and more functionality to make it all the more powerful and useful.

Hopefully similar tools will emerge with which end-users can just as easily generate informative graphs and reports drawing from various sources, be it financial information, health trends, or real-time public sentiments on pressing issues.

This story, "Compare50 brings a taste of big data's potential to the masses," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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