Wolfram Blog
Stephen Wolfram

Launching the Wolfram Data Repository: Data Publishing that Really Works

April 20, 2017 — Stephen Wolfram

After a Decade, It’s Finally Here!

I’m pleased to announce that as of today, the Wolfram Data Repository is officially launched! It’s been a long road. I actually initiated the project a decade ago—but it’s only now, with all sorts of innovations in the Wolfram Language and its symbolic ways of representing data, as well as with the arrival of the Wolfram Cloud, that all the pieces are finally in place to make a true computable data repository that works the way I think it should.

Wolfram Data Respository

It’s happened to me a zillion times: I’m reading a paper or something, and I come across an interesting table or plot. And I think to myself: “I’d really like to get the data behind that, to try some things out”. But how can I get the data?

If I’m lucky there’ll be a link somewhere in the paper. But it’s usually a frustrating experience to follow it. Because even if there’s data there (and often there actually isn’t), it’s almost never in a form where one can readily use it. It’s usually quite raw—and often hard to decode, and perhaps even intertwined with text. And even if I can see the data I want, I almost always find myself threading my way through footnotes to figure out what’s going on with it. And in the end I usually just decide it’s too much trouble to actually pull out the data I want.

And I suppose one might think that this is just par for the course in working with data. But in modern times, we have a great counterexample: the Wolfram Language. It’s been one of my goals with the Wolfram Language to build into it as much data as possible—and make all of that data immediately usable and computable. And I have to say that it’s worked out great. Whether you need the mass of Jupiter, or the masses of all known exoplanets, or Alan Turing’s date of birth—or a trillion much more obscure things—you just ask for them in the language, and you’ll get them in a form where you can immediately compute with them.

Here’s the mass of Jupiter (and, yes, one can use “Wolfram|Alpha-style” natural language to ask for it):

Jupiter(planet)["Mass"]

Dividing it by the mass of the Earth immediately works:

Entity["Planet", "Jupiter"]["Mass"]/Entity["Planet", "Earth"]["Mass"]

Here’s a histogram of the masses of known exoplanets, divided by the mass of Jupiter:

Histogram[  EntityClass["Exoplanet", All]["Mass"]/   Entity["Planet", "Jupiter"]["Mass"]]

And here, for good measure, is Alan Turing’s date of birth, in an immediately computable form:

Alan Turing(person)["BirthDate"]

Of course, it’s taken many years and lots of work to make everything this smooth, and to get to the point where all those thousands of different kinds of data are fully integrated into the Wolfram Language—and Wolfram|Alpha.

But what about other data—say data from some new study or experiment? It’s easy to upload it someplace in some raw form. But the challenge is to make the data actually useful.

And that’s where the new Wolfram Data Repository comes in. Its idea is to leverage everything we’ve done with the Wolfram Language—and Wolfram|Alpha, and the Wolfram Cloud—to make it as easy as possible to make data as broadly usable and computable as possible.

There are many parts to this. But let me state our basic goal. I want it to be the case that if someone is dealing with data they understand well, then they should be able to prepare that data for the Wolfram Data Repository in as little as 30 minutes—and then have that data be something that other people can readily use and compute with.

It’s important to set expectations. Making data fully computable—to the standard of what’s built into the Wolfram Language—is extremely hard. But there’s a lower standard that still makes data extremely useful for many purposes. And what’s important about the Wolfram Data Repository (and the technology around it) is it now makes that standard easy to achieve—with the result that it’s now practical to publish data in a form that can really be used by many people.

An Example

Each item published in the Wolfram Data Repository gets its own webpage. Here, for example, is the page for a public dataset about meteorite landings:

Meteorite Landings

At the top is some general information about the dataset. But then there’s a piece of a Wolfram Notebook illustrating how to use the dataset in the Wolfram Language. And by looking at this notebook, one can start to see some of the real power of the Wolfram Data Repository.

One thing to notice is that it’s very easy to get the data. All you do is ask for ResourceData["Meteorite Landings"]. And whether you’re using the Wolfram Language on a desktop or in the cloud, this will give you a nice symbolic representation of data about 45716 meteorite landings (and, yes, the data is carefully cached so this is as fast as possible, etc.):

And then the important thing is that you can immediately start to do whatever computation you want on that dataset. As an example, this takes the "Coordinates" element from all rows, then takes a random sample of 1000 results, and geo plots them:

GeoListPlot[RandomSample[ResourceData["Meteorite Landings"][All, "Coordinates"],1000]]

Many things have to come together for this to work. First, the data has to be reliably accessible—as it is in the Wolfram Cloud. Second, one has to be able to tell where the coordinates are—which is easy if one can see the dataset in a Wolfram Notebook. And finally, the coordinates have to be in a form in which they can immediately be computed with.

This last point is critical. Just storing the textual form of a coordinate—as one might in something like a spreadsheet—isn’t good enough. One has to have it in a computable form. And needless to say, the Wolfram Language has such a form for geo coordinates: the symbolic construct GeoPosition[{lat,lon}].

There are other things one can immediately see from the meteorites dataset too. Like notice there’s a "Mass" column. And because we’re using the Wolfram Language, masses don’t have to just be numbers; they can be symbolic Quantity objects that correctly include their units. There’s also a "Year" column in the data, and again, each year is represented by an actual, computable, symbolic DateObject construct.

There are lots of different kinds of possible data, and one needs a sophisticated data ontology to handle them. But that’s exactly what we’ve built for the Wolfram Language, and for Wolfram|Alpha, and it’s now been very thoroughly tested. It involves 10,000 kinds of units, and tens of millions of “core entities”, like cities and chemicals and so on. We call it the Wolfram Data Framework (WDF)—and it’s one of the things that makes the Wolfram Data Repository possible.

What’s in the Wolfram Data Repository So Far?

Today is the initial launch of the Wolfram Data Repository, and to get ready for this launch we’ve been adding sample content to the repository for several months. Some of what we’ve added are “obvious” famous datasets. Some are datasets that we found for some reason interesting, or curious. And some are datasets that we created ourselves—and in some cases that I created myself, for example, in the course of writing my book A New Kind of Science.

WDR Home Page Categories

There’s plenty already in the Wolfram Data Repository that’ll immediately be useful in a variety of applications. But in a sense what’s there now is just an example of what can be there—and the kinds of things we hope and expect will be contributed by many other people and organizations.

The fact that the Wolfram Data Repository is built on top of our Wolfram Language technology stack immediately gives it great generality—and means that it can handle data of any kind. It’s not just tables of numerical data as one might have in a spreadsheet or simple database. It’s data of any type and structure, in any possible combination or arrangement.

Home Page Types

There are time series:

Take[ResourceData["US Federal Outlays by Agency"], 3]

There are training sets for machine learning:

RandomSample[ResourceData["MNIST"], 30]

There’s gridded data:

ResourceData["GMM-3 Mars Gravity Map"]

There’s the text of many books:

WordCloud[ResourceData["On the Origin of Species"]]

There’s geospatial data:

ResourceData["Global Air Navigation Aids"]

GeoHistogram[ResourceData"Global Air Navigation Aids"][All, "Geoposition"], 50, GeoRange-> United States]

Many of the data resources currently in the Wolfram Data Repository are quite tabular in nature. But unlike traditional spreadsheets or tables in databases, they’re not restricted to having just one level of rows and columns—because they’re represented using symbolic Wolfram Language Dataset constructs, which can handle arbitrarily ragged structures, of any depth.

ResourceData["Sample Data: Solar System Planets and Moons"]

But what about data that normally lives in relational or graph databases? Well, there’s a construct called EntityStore that was recently added to the Wolfram Language. We’ve actually been using something like it for years inside Wolfram|Alpha. But what EntityStore now does is to let you set up arbitrary networks of entities, properties and values, right in the Wolfram Language. It typically takes more curation than setting up something like a Dataset—but the result is a very convenient representation of knowledge, on which all the same functions can be used as with built-in Wolfram Language knowledge.

Here’s a data resource that’s an entity store:

ResourceData ["Museum of Modern Art Holdings and Artists"]

This adds the entity stores to the list of entity stores to be used automatically:

PrependTo [$EntityStores, %];

Now here are 5 random entities of type "MoMAArtist" from the entity store:

RandomEntity ["MoMAArtist", 5]

For each artist, one can extract a dataset of values:

Entity[MoMAArtist], Otto Mühl[Dataset]

This queries the entity store to find artists with the most recent birth dates:

EntityList[Entity["MoMAArtist", "BirthDate" -> TakeLargest[5]]]

How It Works

The Wolfram Data Repository is built on top of a new, very general thing in the Wolfram Language called the “resource system”. (Yes, expect all sorts of other repository and marketplace-like things to be rolling out shortly.)

The resource system has “resource objects”, that are stored in the cloud (using CloudObject), then automatically downloaded and cached on the desktop if necessary (using LocalObject). Each ResourceObject contains both primary content and metadata. For the Wolfram Data Repository, the primary content is data, which you can access using ResourceData.

ResourceData

The Wolfram Data Repository that we’re launching today is a public resource, that lives in the public Wolfram Cloud. But we’re also going to be rolling out private Wolfram Data Repositories, that can be run in Enterprise Private Clouds—and indeed inside our own company we’ve already set up several private data repositories, that contain internal data for our company.

There’s no limit in principle on the size of the data that can be stored in the Wolfram Data Repository. But for now, the “plumbing” is optimized for data that’s at most about a few gigabytes in size—and indeed the existing examples in the Wolfram Data Repository make it clear that an awful lot of useful data never even gets bigger than a few megabytes in size.

The Wolfram Data Repository is primarily intended for the case of definitive data that’s not continually changing. For data that’s constantly flowing in—say from IoT devices—we released last year the Wolfram Data Drop. Both Data Repository and Data Drop are deeply integrated into the Wolfram Language, and through our resource system, there’ll be some variants and combinations coming in the future.

Delivering Data to the World

Our goal with the Wolfram Data Repository is to provide a central place for data from all sorts of organizations to live—in such a way that it can readily be found and used.

Each entry in the Wolfram Data Repository has an associated webpage, which describes the data it contains, and gives examples that can immediately be run in the Wolfram Cloud (or downloaded to the desktop).

Open in Cloud

On the webpage for each repository entry (and in the ResourceObject that represents it), there’s also metadata, for indexing and searching—including standard Dublin Core bibliographic data. To make it easier to refer to the Wolfram Data Repository entries, every entry also has a unique DOI.

The way we’re managing the Wolfram Data Repository, every entry also has a unique readable registered name, that’s used both for the URL of its webpage, and for the specification of the ResourceObject that represents the entry.

It’s extremely easy to use data from the Wolfram Data Repository inside a Wolfram Notebook, or indeed in any Wolfram Language program. The data is ultimately stored in the Wolfram Cloud. But you can always download it—for example right from the webpage for any repository entry.

The richest and most useful form in which to get the data is the Wolfram Language or the Wolfram Data Framework (WDF)—either in ASCII or in binary. But we’re also setting it up so you can download in other formats, like JSON (and in suitable cases CSV, TXT, PNG, etc.) just by pressing a button.

Data Downloads

Of course, even formats like JSON don’t have native ways to represent entities, or quantities with units, or dates, or geo positions—or all those other things that WDF and the Wolfram Data Repository deal with. So if you really want to handle data in its full form, it’s much better to work directly in the Wolfram Language. But then with the Wolfram Language you can always process some slice of the data into some simpler form that does makes sense to export in a lower-level format.

How Contributions Work

The Wolfram Data Repository as we’re releasing it today is a platform for publishing data to the world. And to get it started, we’ve put in about 500 sample entries. But starting today we’re accepting contributions from anyone. We’re going to review and vet contributions much like we’ve done for the past decade for the Wolfram Demonstrations Project. And we’re going to emphasize contributions and data that we feel are of general interest.

But the technology of the Wolfram Data Repository—and the resource system that underlies it—is quite general, and allows people not just to publish data freely to the world, but also to share data in a more controlled fashion. The way it works is that people prepare their data just like they would for submission to the public Wolfram Data Repository. But then instead of actually submitting it, they just deploy it to their own Wolfram Cloud accounts, giving access to whomever they want.

And in fact, the general workflow is that even when people are submitting to the public Wolfram Data Repository, we’re going to expect them to have first deployed their data to their own Wolfram Cloud accounts. And as soon as they do that, they’ll get webpages and everything—just like in the public Wolfram Data Repository.

OK, so how does one create a repository entry? You can either do it programmatically using Wolfram Language code, or do it more interactively using Wolfram Notebooks. Let’s talk about the notebook way first.

You start by getting a template notebook. You can either do this through the menu item File > New > Data Resource, or you can use CreateNotebook["DataResource"]. Either way, you’ll get something that looks like this:

Data Resource Construction Notebook

Basically it’s then a question of “filling out the form”. A very important section is the one that actually provides the content for the resource:

Resource Content

Yes, it’s Wolfram Language code—and what’s nice is that it’s flexible enough to allow for basically any content you want. You can either just enter the content directly in the notebook, or you can have the notebook refer to a local file, or to a cloud object you have.

An important part of the Construction Notebook (at least if you want to have a nice webpage for your data) is the section that lets you give examples. When the examples are actually put up on the webpage, they’ll reference the data resource you’re creating. But when you’re filling in the Construction Notebook the resource hasn’t been created yet. The symbolic character of the Wolfram Language comes to the rescue, though. Because it lets you reference the content of the data resource symbolically as $$Data in the inputs that’ll be displayed, but lets you set $$Data to actual data when you’re working in the Construction Notebook to build up the examples.

Heart Rate Data

Alright, so once you’ve filled out the Construction Notebook, what do you do? There are two initial choices: set up the resource locally on your computer, or set it up in the cloud:

Private Deploy

And then, if you’re ready, you can actually submit your resource for publication in the public Wolfram Data Repository (yes, you need to get a Publisher ID, so your resource can be associated with your organization rather than just with your personal account):

Submit to the Wolfram Data Repository Page

It’s often convenient to set up resources in notebooks. But like everything else in our technology stack, there’s a programmatic Wolfram Language way to do it too—and sometimes this is what will be best.

Remember that everything that is going to be in the Wolfram Data Repository is ultimately a ResourceObject. And a ResourceObject—like everything else in the Wolfram Language—is just a symbolic expression, which happens to contain an association that gives the content and metadata of the resource object.

Well, once you’ve created an appropriate ResourceObject, you can just deploy it to the cloud using CloudDeploy. And when you do this, a private webpage associated with your cloud account will automatically be created. That webpage will in turn correspond to a CloudObject. And by setting the permissions of that cloud object, you can determine who will be able to look at the webpage, and who will be able to get the data that’s associated with it.

When you’ve got a ResourceObject, you can submit it to the public Wolfram Data Repository just by using ResourceSubmit.

By the way, all this stuff works not just for the main Wolfram Data Repository in the public Wolfram Cloud, but also for data repositories in private clouds. The administrator of an Enterprise Private Cloud can decide how they want to vet data resources that are submitted (and how they want to manage things like name collisions)—though often they may choose just to publish any resource that’s submitted.

The procedure we’ve designed for vetting and editing resources for the public Wolfram Data Repository is quite elaborate—though in any given case we expect it to run quickly. It involves doing automated tests on the incoming data and examples—and then ensuring that these continue working as changes are made, for example in subsequent versions of the Wolfram Language. Administrators of private clouds definitely don’t have to use this procedure—but we’ll be making our tools available if they want to.

Making a Data-Backed Publication

OK, so let’s say there’s a data resource in the Wolfram Data Repository. How can it actually be used to create a data-backed publication? The most obvious answer is just for the publication to include a link to the webpage for the data resource in the Wolfram Data Repository. And once people go to the page, it immediately shows them how to access the data in the Wolfram Language, use it in the Wolfram Open Cloud, download it, or whatever.

But what about an actual visualization or whatever that appears in the paper? How can people know how to make it? One possibility is that the visualization can just be included among the examples on the webpage for the data resource. But there’s also a more direct way, which uses Source Links in the Wolfram Cloud.

Here’s how it works. You create a Wolfram Notebook that takes data from the Wolfram Data Repository and creates the visualization:

Creating Visualizations with a Wolfram Notebook

Then you deploy this visualization to the Wolfram Cloud—either using Wolfram Language functions like CloudDeploy and EmbedCode, or using menu items. But when you do the deployment, you say to include a source link (SourceLink->Automatic in the Wolfram Language). And this means that when you get an embeddable graphic, it comes with a source link that takes you back to the notebook that made the graphic:

Sourcelink to the Notebook

So if someone is reading along and they get to that graphic, they can just follow its source link to see how it was made, and to see how it accesses data from the Wolfram Data Repository. With the Wolfram Data Repository you can do data-backed publishing; with source links you can also do full notebook-backed publishing.

The Big Win

Now that we’ve talked a bit about how the Wolfram Data Repository works, let’s talk again about why it’s important—and why having data in it is so valuable.

The #1 reason is simple: it makes data immediately useful, and computable.

There’s nice, easy access to the data (just use ResourceData["..."]). But the really important—and unique—thing is that data in the Wolfram Data Repository is stored in a uniform, symbolic way, as WDF, leveraging everything we’ve done with data over the course of so many years in the Wolfram Language and Wolfram|Alpha.

Why is it good to have data in WDF? First, because in WDF the meaning of everything is explicit: whether it’s an entity, or quantity, or geo position, or whatever, it’s a symbolic element that’s been carefully designed and documented. (And it’s not just a disembodied collection of numbers or strings.) And there’s another important thing: data in WDF is already in precisely the form it’s needed for one to be able to immediately visualize, analyze or otherwise compute with it using any of the many thousands of functions that are built into the Wolfram Language.

Wolfram Notebooks are also an important part of the picture—because they make it easy to show how to work with the data, and give immediately runnable examples. Also critical is the fact that the Wolfram Language is so succinct and easy to read—because that’s what makes it possible to give standalone examples that people can readily understand, modify and incorporate into their own work.

In many cases using the Wolfram Data Repository will consist of identifying some data resource (say through a link from a document), then using the Wolfram Language in Wolfram Notebooks to explore the data in it. But the Wolfram Data Repository is fully integrated into the Wolfram Language, so it can be used wherever the language is used. Which means the data from the Wolfram Data Repository can be used not just in the cloud or on the desktop, but also in servers and so on. And, for example, it can also be used in APIs or scheduled tasks, using the exact same ResourceData functions as ever.

The most common way the Wolfram Data Repository will be used is one resource at a time. But what’s really great about the uniformity and standardization that WDF provides is that it allows different data resources to be used together: those dates or geo positions mean the same thing even in different data resources, so they can immediately be put together in the same analysis, visualization, or whatever.

The Wolfram Data Repository builds on the whole technology stack that we’ve been assembling for the past three decades. In some ways it’s just a sophisticated piece of infrastructure that makes a lot of things easier to do. But I can already tell that its implications go far beyond that—and that it’s going to have a qualitative effect on the extent to which people can successfully share and reuse a wide range of kinds of data.

The Process of Data Curation

It’s a big win to have data in the Wolfram Data Repository. But what’s involved in getting it there? There’s almost always a certain amount of data curation required.

Let’s take a look again at the meteorite landings dataset I showed earlier in this post. It started from a collection of data made available in a nicely organized way by NASA. (Quite often one has to scrape webpages or PDFs; this is a case where the data happens to be set up to be downloadable in a variety of convenient formats.)

Meteorite Landing Data from NASA

As is fairly typical, the basic elements of the data here are numbers and strings. So the first thing to do is to figure out how to map these to meaningful symbolic constructs in WDF. For example, the “mass” column is labeled as being “(g)”, i.e. in grams—so each element in it should get converted to Quantity[value,"Grams"]. It’s a little trickier, though, because for some rows—corresponding to some meteorites—the value is just blank, presumably because it isn’t known.

So how should that be represented? Well, because the Wolfram Language is symbolic it’s pretty easy. And in fact there’s a standard symbolic construct Missing[...] for indicating missing data, which is handled consistently in analysis and visualization functions.

As we start to look further into the dataset, we see all sorts of other things. There’s a column labeled “year”. OK, we can convert that into DateObject[{value}]—though we need to be careful about any BC dates (how would they appear in the raw data?).

Next there are columns “reclat” and “reclong”, as well as a column called “GeoLocation” that seems to combine these, but with numbers quoted a different precision. A little bit of searching suggests that we should just take reclat and reclong as the latitude and longitude of the meteorite—then convert these into the symbolic form GeoPosition[{lat,lon}].

To do this in practice, we’d start by just importing all the data:

Import ["https://data.nasa.gov/api/views/gh4g-9sfh/rows.csv?accessType=\ DOWNLOAD", "CSV"]

OK, let’s extract a sample row:

data [[2]]

Already there’s something unexpected: the date isn’t just the year, but instead it’s a precise time. So this needs to be converted:

Interpreter ["DateTime"][data[[2, 7]]]

Now we’ve got to reset this to correspond only to a date at a granularity of a year:

DateObject [{DateValue[Interpreter["DateTime"][data[[2, 7]]],     "Year"]}, "Year"]

Here is the geo position:

GeoPosition [{data[[2, -3]], data[[2, -2]]}]" title="GeoPosition[{data[[2, -3]], data[[2, -2]]}]

And we can keep going, gradually building up code that can be applied to each row of the imported data. In practice there are often little things that go wrong. There’s something missing in some row. There’s an extra piece of text (a “footnote”) somewhere. There’s something in the data that got misinterpreted as a delimiter when the data was provided for download. Each one of these needs to be handled—preferably with as much automation as possible.

But in the end we have a big list of rows, each of which needs to be assembled into an association, then all combined to make a Dataset object that can be checked to see if it’s good to go into the Wolfram Data Repository.

The Data Curation Hierarchy

The example above is fairly typical of basic curation that can be done in less than 30 minutes by any decently skilled user of the Wolfram Language. (A person who’s absorbed my book An Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language should, for example, be able to do it.)

It’s a fairly simple example—where notably the original form of the data was fairly clean. But even in this case it’s worth understanding what hasn’t been done. For example, look at the column labeled "Classification" in the final dataset. It’s got a bunch of strings in it. And, yes, we can do something like make a word cloud of these strings:

WordCloud [  Normal[ResourceData["Meteorite Landings"][All, "Classification"]]]

But to really make these values computable, we’d have to do more work. We’d have to figure out some kind of symbolic representation for meteorite classification, then we’d have to do curation (and undoubtedly ask some meteorite experts) to fit everything nicely into that representation. The advantage of doing this is that we could then ask questions about those values (“what meteorites are above L3?”), and expect to compute answers. But there’s plenty we can already do with this data resource without that.

My experience in general has been that there’s a definite hierarchy of effort and payoff in getting data to be computable at different levels—starting with the data just existing in digital form, and ending with the data being cleanly computable enough that it can be fully integrated in the core Wolfram Language, and used for repeated, systematic computations.

Data Hierarchy Levels

 

Let’s talk about this hierarchy a bit.

The zeroth thing, of course, is that the data has to exist. And the next thing is that it has to be in digital form. If it started on handwritten index cards, for example, it had better have been entered into a document or spreadsheet or something.

But then the next issue is: how are people supposed to get access to that document or spreadsheet? Well, a good answer is that it should be in some kind of accessible cloud—perhaps referenced with a definite URI. And for a lot of data repositories that exist out there, just making the data accessible like this is the end of the story.

But one has to go a lot further to make the data actually useful. The next step is typically to make sure that the data is arranged in some definite structure. It might be a set of rows and columns, or it might be something more elaborate, and, say, hierarchical. But the point is to have a definite, known structure.

In the Wolfram Language, it’s typically trivial to take data that’s stored in any reasonable format, and use Import to get it into the Wolfram Language, arranged in some appropriate way. (As I’ll talk about later, it might be a Dataset, it might be an EntityStore, it might just be a list of Image objects, or it might be all sorts of other things.)

But, OK, now things start getting more difficult. We need to be able to recognize, say, that such-and-such a column has entries representing countries, or pairs of dates, or animal species, or whatever. SemanticImport uses machine learning and does a decent job of automatically importing many kinds of data. But there are often things that have to be fixed. How exactly is missing data represented? Are there extra annotations that get in the way of automatic interpretation? This is where one starts needing experts, who really understand the data.

But let’s say one’s got through this stage. Well, then in my experience, the best thing to do is to start visualizing the data. And very often one will immediately see things that are horribly wrong. Some particular quantity was represented in several inconsistent ways in the data. Maybe there was some obvious transcription or other error. And so on. But with luck it’s fairly easy to transform the data to handle the obvious issues—though to actually get it right almost always requires someone who is an expert on the data.

What comes out of this process is typically very useful for many purposes—and it’s the level of curation that we’re expecting for things submitted to the Wolfram Data Repository.

It’ll be possible to do all sorts of analysis and visualization and other things with data in this form.

But if one wants, for example, to actually integrate the data into Wolfram|Alpha, there’s considerably more that has to be done. For a start, everything that can realistically be represented symbolically has to be represented symbolically. It’s not good enough to have random strings giving values of things—because one can’t ask systematic questions about those. And this typically requires inventing systematic ways to represent new kinds of concepts in the world—like the "Classification" for meteorites.

Wolfram|Alpha works by taking natural language input. So the next issue is: when there’s something in the data that can be referred to, how do people refer to it in natural language? Often there’ll be a whole collection of names for something, with all sorts of variations. One has to algorithmically capture all of the possibilities.

Next, one has to think about what kinds of questions will be asked about the data. In Wolfram|Alpha, the fact that the questions get asked in natural language forces a certain kind of simplicity on them. But it makes one also need to figure out just what the linguistics of the questions can be (and typically this is much more complicated than the linguistics for entities or other definite things). And then—and this is often a very difficult part—one has to figure out what people want to compute, and how they want to compute it.

At least in the world of Wolfram|Alpha, it turns out to be quite rare for people just to ask for raw pieces of data. They want answers to questions—that have to be computed with models, or methods, or algorithms, from the underlying data. For meteorites, they might want to know not the raw information about when a meteorite fell, but compute the weathering of the meteorite, based on when it fell, what climate it’s in, what it’s made of, and so on. And to have data successfully be integrated into Wolfram|Alpha, those kinds of computations all need to be there.

For full Wolfram|Alpha there’s even more. Not only does one have to be able to give a single answer, one has to be able to generate a whole report, that includes related answers, and presents them in a well-organized way.

It’s ultimately a lot of work. There are very few domains that have been added to Wolfram|Alpha with less than a few skilled person-months of work. And there are plenty of domains that have taken person-years or tens of person-years. And to get the right answers, there always has to be a domain expert involved.

Getting data integrated into Wolfram|Alpha is a significant achievement. But there’s further one can go—and indeed to integrate data into the Wolfram Language one has to go further. In Wolfram|Alpha people are asking one-off questions—and the goal is to do as well as possible on individual questions. But if there’s data in the Wolfram Language, people won’t just ask one-off questions with it: they’ll also do large-scale systematic computations. And this demands a much greater level of consistency and completeness—which in my experience rarely takes less than person-years per domain to achieve.

But OK. So where does this leave the Wolfram Data Repository? Well, the good news is that all that work we’ve put into Wolfram|Alpha and the Wolfram Language can be leveraged for the Wolfram Data Repository. It would take huge amounts of work to achieve what’s needed to actually integrate data into Wolfram|Alpha or the Wolfram Language. But given all the technology we have, it takes very modest amounts of work to make data already very useful. And that’s what the Wolfram Data Repository is about.

The Data Publishing Ecosystem

With the Wolfram Data Repository (and Wolfram Notebooks) there’s finally a great way to do true data-backed publishing—and to ensure that data can be made available in an immediately useful and computable way.

For at least a decade there’s been lots of interest in sharing data in areas like research and government. And there’ve been all sorts of data repositories created—often with good software engineering—with the result that instead of data just sitting on someone’s local computer, it’s now pretty common for it to be uploaded to a central server or cloud location.

But the problem has been that the data in these repositories is almost always in a quite raw form—and not set up to be generally meaningful and computable. And in the past—except in very specific domains—there’s been no really good way to do this, at least in any generality. But the point of the Wolfram Data Repository is to use all the development we’ve done on the Wolfram Language and WDF to finally be able to provide a framework for having data in an immediately computable form.

The effect is dramatic. One goes from a situation where people are routinely getting frustrated trying to make use of data to one in which data is immediately and readily usable. Often there’s been lots of investment and years of painstaking work put into accumulating some particular set of data. And it’s often sad to see how little the data actually gets used—even though it’s in principle accessible to anyone. But I’m hoping that the Wolfram Data Repository will provide a way to change this—by allowing data not just to be accessible, but also computable, and easy for anyone to immediately and routinely use as part of their work.

There’s great value to having data be computable—but there’s also some cost to making it so. Of course, if one’s just collecting the data now, and particularly if it’s coming from automated sources, like networks of sensors, then one can just set it up to be in nice, computable WDF right from the start (say by using the data semantics layer of the Wolfram Data Drop). But at least for a while there’s going to still be a lot of data that’s in the form of things like spreadsheets and traditional databases—-that don’t even have the technology to support the kinds of structures one would need to directly represent WDF and computable data.

So that means that there’ll inevitably have to be some effort put into curating the data to make it computable. Of course, with everything that’s now in the Wolfram Language, the level of tools available for curation has become extremely high. But to do curation properly, there’s always some level of human effort—and some expert input—that’s required. And a key question in understanding the post-Wolfram-Data-Repository data publishing ecosystem is who is actually going to do this work.

In a first approximation, it could be the original producers of the data—or it could be professional or other “curation specialists”—or some combination. There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these possibilities. But I suspect that at least for things like research data it’ll be most efficient to start with the original producers of the data.

The situation now with data curation is a little similar to the historical situation with document production. Back when I was first doing science (yes, in the 1970s) people handwrote papers, then gave them to professional typists to type. Once typed, papers would be submitted to publishers, who would then get professional copyeditors to copyedit them, and typesetters to typeset them for printing. It was all quite time consuming and expensive. But over the course of the 1980s, authors began to learn to type their own papers on a computer—and then started just uploading them directly to servers, in effect putting them immediately in publishable form.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but in both data curation and document editing there are issues of structure and formatting—and then there are issues that require actual understanding of the content. (Sometimes there are also more global “policy” issues too.) And for producing computable data, as for producing documents, almost always the most efficient thing will be to start with authors “typing their own papers”—or in the case of data, putting their data into WDF themselves.

Of course, to do this requires learning at least a little about computable data, and about how to do curation. And to assist with this we’re working with various groups to develop materials and provide training about such things. Part of what has to be communicated is about mechanics: how to move data, convert formats, and so on. But part of it is also about principles—and about how to make the best judgement calls in setting up data that’s computable.

We’re planning to organize “curateathons” where people who know the Wolfram Language and have experience with WDF data curation can pair up with people who understand particular datasets—and hopefully quickly get all sorts of data that they may have accumulated over decades into computable form—and into the Wolfram Data Repository.

In the end I’m confident that a very wide range of people (not just techies, but also humanities people and so on) will be able to become proficient at data curation with the Wolfram Language. But I expect there’ll always be a certain mixture of “type it yourself” and “have someone type it for you” approaches to data curation. Some people will make their data computable themselves—or will have someone right there in their lab or whatever who does. And some people will instead rely on outside providers to do it.

Who will these providers be? There’ll be individuals or companies set up much like the ones who provide editing and publishing services today. And to support this we’re planning a “Certified Data Curator” program to help define consistent standards for people who will work with the originators of a wide range of different kinds of data putting it into computable form.

But in additional to individuals or specific “curation companies”, there are at least two other kinds of entities that have the potential to be major facilitators of making data computable.

The first is research libraries. The role of libraries at many universities is somewhat in flux these days. But something potentially very important for them to do is to provide a central place for organizing—and making computable—data from the university and beyond. And in many ways this is just a modern analog of traditional library activities like archiving and cataloging.

It might involve the library actually having a private cloud version of the Wolfram Data Repository—and it might involve the library having its own staff to do curation. Or it might just involve the library providing advice. But I’ve found there’s quite a bit of enthusiasm in the library community for this kind of direction (and it’s perhaps an interesting sign that at our company people involved in data curation have often originally been trained in library science).

In addition to libraries, another type of organization that should be involved in making data computable is publishing companies. Some might say that publishing companies have had it a bit easy in the last couple of decades. Back in the day, every paper they published involved all sorts of production work, taking it from manuscript to final typeset version. But for years now, authors have been delivering their papers in digital forms that publishers don’t have to do much work on.

With data, though, there’s again something for publishers to do, and again a place for them to potentially add great value. Authors can pretty much put raw data into public repositories for themselves. But what would make publishers visibly add value is for them to process (or “edit”) the data—putting in the work to make it computable. The investment and processes will be quite similar to what was involved on the text side in the past—it’s just that now instead of learning about phototypesetting systems, publishers should be learning about WDF and the Wolfram Language.

It’s worth saying that as of today all data that we accept into the Wolfram Data Repository is being made freely available. But we’re anticipating in the near future we’ll also incorporate a marketplace in which data can be bought and sold (and even potentially have meaningful DRM, at least if it’s restricted to being used in the Wolfram Language). It’ll also be possible to have a private cloud version of the Wolfram Data Repository—in which whatever organization that runs it can set up whatever rules it wants about contributions, subscriptions and access.

One feature of traditional paper publishing is the sense of permanence it provides: once even just a few hundred printed copies of a paper are on shelves in university libraries around the world, it’s reasonable to assume that the paper is going to be preserved forever. With digital material, preservation is more complicated.

If someone just deploys a data resource to their Wolfram Cloud account, then it can be available to the world—but only so long as the account is maintained. The Wolfram Data Repository, though, is intended to be something much more permanent. Once we’ve accepted a piece of data for the repository, our goal is to ensure that it’ll continue to be available, come what may. It’s an interesting question how best to achieve that, given all sorts of possible future scenarios in the world. But now that the Wolfram Data Repository is finally launched, we’re going to be working with several well-known organizations to make sure that its content is as securely maintained as possible.

Data-Backed Journals

The Wolfram Data Repository—and private versions of it—is basically a powerful, enabling technology for making data available in computable form. And sometimes all one wants to do is to make the data available.

But at least in academic publishing, the main point usually isn’t the data. There’s usually a “story to be told”—and the data is just backup for that story. Of course, having that data backing is really important—and potentially quite transformative. Because when one has the data, in computable form, it’s realistic for people to work with it themselves, reproducing or checking the research, and directly building on it themselves.

But, OK, how does the Wolfram Data Repository relate to traditional academic publishing? For our official Wolfram Data Repository we’re going to have definite standards for what we accept—and we’re going to concentrate on data that we think is of general interest or use. We have a whole process for checking the structure of data, and applying software quality assurance methods, as well as expert review, to it.

And, yes, each entry in the Wolfram Data Repository gets a DOI, just like a journal article. But for our official Wolfram Data Repository we’re focused on data—and not the story around it. We don’t see it as our role to check the methods by which the data was obtained, or to decide whether conclusions drawn from it are valid or not.

But given the Wolfram Data Repository, there are lots of new opportunities for data-backed academic journals that do in effect “tell stories”, but now have the infrastructure to back them up with data that can readily be used.

I’m looking forward, for example, to finally making the journal Complex Systems that I founded 30 years ago a true data-backed journal. And there are many existing journals where it makes sense to use versions of the Wolfram Data Repository (often in a private cloud) to deliver computable data associated with journal articles.

But what’s also interesting is that now that one can take computable data for granted, there’s a whole new generation of “Journal of Data-Backed ____” journals that become possible—that not only use data from the Wolfram Data Repository, but also actually present their results as Wolfram Notebooks that can immediately be rerun and extended (and can also, for example, contain interactive elements).

The Corporate Version

I’ve been talking about the Wolfram Data Repository in the context of things like academic journals. But it’s also important in corporate settings. Because it gives a very clean way to have data shared across an organization (or shared with customers, etc.).

Typically in a corporate setting one’s talking about private cloud versions. And of course these can have their own rules about how contributions work, and who can access what. And the data can not only be immediately used in Wolfram Notebooks, but also in automatically generated reports, or instant APIs.

It’s been interesting to see—during the time we’ve been testing the Wolfram Data Repository—just how many applications we’ve found for it within our own company.

There’s information that used to be on webpages, but is now in our private Wolfram Data Repository, and is now immediately usable for computation. There’s information that used to be in databases, and which required serious programming to access, but is now immediately accessible through the Wolfram Language. And there are all sorts of even quite small lists and so on that used to exist only in textual form, but are now computable data in our data repository.

It’s always been my goal to have a truly “computable company”—and putting in place our private Wolfram Data Repository is an important step in achieving this.

My Very Own Data

In addition to public and corporate uses, there are also great uses of Wolfram Data Repository technology for individuals—and particularly for individual researchers. In my own case, I’ve got huge amounts of data that I’ve collected or generated over the course of my life. I happen to be pretty organized at keeping things—but it’s still usually something of an adventure to remember enough to “bring back to life” data I haven’t dealt with in a decade or more. And in practice I make much less use of older data than I should—even though in many cases it took me immense effort to collect or generate the data in the first place.

But now it’s a different story. Because all I have to do is to upload data once and for all to the Wolfram Data Repository, and then it’s easy for me to get and use the data whenever I want to. Some data (like medical or financial records) I want just for myself, so I use a private cloud version of the Wolfram Data Repository. But other data I’ve been getting uploaded into the public Wolfram Data Repository.

Here’s an example. It comes from a page in my book A New Kind of Science:

Page 833 from A New Kind of Science

The page says that by searching about 8 trillion possible systems in the computational universe I found 199 that satisfy some particular criterion. And in the book I show examples of some of these. But where’s the data?

Well, because I’m fairly organized about such things, I can go into my file system, and find the actual Wolfram Notebook from 2001 that generated the picture in the book. And that leads me to a file that contains the raw data—which then takes a very short time to turn into a data resource for the Wolfram Data Repository:

Three-Color Cellular Automaton Rules that Double Their Input

We’ve been systematically mining data from my research going back into the 1980s—even from Mathematica Version 1 notebooks from 1988 (which, yes, still work today). Sometimes the experience is a little less inspiring. Like to find a list of people referenced in the index of A New Kind of Science, together with their countries and dates, the best approach seemed to be to scrape the online book website:

ResourceData["People Mentioned in Stephen Wolfram\[CloseCurlyQuote]s \ \[OpenCurlyDoubleQuote]A New Kind of Science\[CloseCurlyDoubleQuote]"]

And to get a list of the books I used while working on A New Kind of Science required going into an ancient FileMaker database. But now all the data—nicely merged with Open Library information deduced from ISBNs—is in a clean WDF form in the Wolfram Data Repository. So I can do such things as immediately make a word cloud of the titles of the books:

WordCloud[  StringRiffle[   Normal[ResourceData["Books in Stephen Wolfram's Library"][All,      "Title"]]]]

What It Means

Many things have had to come together to make today’s launch of the Wolfram Data Repository possible. In the modern software world it’s easy to build something that takes blobs of data and puts them someplace in the cloud for people to access. But what’s vastly more difficult is to have the data actually be immediately useful—and making that possible is what’s required the whole development of our Wolfram Language and Wolfram Cloud technology stack, which are now the basis for the Wolfram Data Repository.

But now that the Wolfram Data Repository exists—and private versions of it can be set up—there are lots of new opportunities. For the research community, the most obvious is finally being able to do genuine data-backed publication, where one can routinely make underlying data from pieces of research available in a way that people can actually use. There are variants of this in education—making data easy to access and use for educational exercises and projects.

In the corporate world, it’s about making data conveniently available across an organization. And for individuals, it’s about maintaining data in such a way that it can be readily used for computation, and built on.

But in the end, I see the Wolfram Data Repository as a key enabling technology for defining how one can work with data in the future—and I’m excited that after all this time it’s finally now launched and available to everyone.

Leave a Comment

4 Comments


amyb

This is truly amazing, a million thanks.

Posted by amyb    May 3, 2017 at 10:17 pm
Paul Frischknecht

Very inspiring. IMO the world-wide, publicly accessible “information system” of computation and data is finally coming together thanks to “the cloud” and efforts like this. All individually owned devices are just IO-devices and caches (and “edge computation devices”) for it. Fascinating stuff.

Posted by Paul Frischknecht    May 22, 2017 at 10:13 am
RML

This is a truly great idea that deserves to be widely supported.

Posted by RML    May 22, 2017 at 4:04 pm


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