I think the announcement of Wolfram|Alpha Pro will prove to be among the most important advancements in data science in 2012. It’s about bringing data science to the masses, so anyone can do basic analysis without installing and learning complex tools (or any tools). For those not yet in the know, Wolfram|Alpha is essentially a very smart calculator that takes your natural-language query, then goes and digs out all the information it has and presents it visually, using tables and graphs. It can do everything from retirement calculations to population graphics to Apple’s share price over time.
The most interesting thing the Pro version does is to automate the initial steps in exploring your data. It will show you what your data look like and what’s interesting about them, precisely the first steps any data scientist would take upon receiving them. And it’s orders of magnitude cheaper than hiring your own data scientist, at $5/month. The limitations are equally apparent: knowing the right questions to ask, and how to interpret the results, are left to you.
Another incredibly useful feature is the ability to download the numbers behind every graph W|A Pro creates. Raw access to the data enables you to do follow-up analysis, to combine these numbers with others, or to simply make a prettier graph. This turns W|A Pro into a sort of centralized data source — do your search there, and pull the data out to use however you wanted, rather than digging all over the Internet for the data you wanted.
If you’re just getting started with data analysis, I couldn’t recommend a better place to begin. W|A Pro is about democratizing data science. But if the results are unclear, or you’re unsure what conclusions to draw — well, maybe it’s time to ask us. Don’t stop at pretty graphs when you need actionable insights, because they’re all hidden in the data you already have.