One is the loneliest number. There are two steps to heaven. Three acts in a good screenplay. Four to the floor. You’re supposed to eat at least five portions of fruit and veg per day.
Numbers are everywhere and they’re nowhere. They are jumbled up in a morass of other data. Which is sometimes fine if you’re searching for a swathe of stuff. But what if you want to nail down a particular digit. Cut to the numerical chase. Get to the heart of the matter by laying your finger on that vital statistic.
Finding a number among all the associated dross can be tedium itself. And that’s where a new crowdsourced website, called Meterfy, comes in. The self-funded U.K. startup, founded as the germ of an idea back in 2012 and just opening up its site to the public today, wants to zero in on finding and sharing interesting numbers.
Meterfy is like Google or Twitter or Evernote or Wikipedia but for numbers, says co-founder Peter Walsham — who has a background in physics, and can include the illustrious line ‘worked at CERN on the LHC‘ on his CV.
“Meterfy is a place anyone can contribute any fact they would like about a number. It’s also somewhere to discover countless numerical snippets of wisdom from absolutely every walk of life,” says Walsham.
Walsham’s co-founder, Daniel Emmerson, is an old university friend and long-time business partner. The pair co-founded a Digital Asset Management business for architects called Axomic.com — where they both still work 12 years on. But that’s just the day job. Meterfy is their numerical passion project.
The Meterfy website lets users search for a topic they’re interested in and get a series of related (crowdsourced) numbers back.
Here are a few examples of the sorts of numerical data points that can be found on Meterfy:
Why not just use Wikipedia to track down numerical data? Well, you have to parse an awful lot of text to locate a particular stat. That’s the Baroque beauty of Wikipedia: all that detail. But sometimes you just want one detail, not a thousand. A single bare fact. Meterfy wants to be the place you go to grab that raw digit(al) data — or to browse other interesting figures.
“Numbers can be just so darn hard to find sometimes, but they really shouldn’t be,” says Walsham. “There are over 6 billion searches on Google every day; a proportion of these people are looking for numbers. So often you have to spend 60 seconds or more trawling through a bunch of boring old links, it really shouldn’t be that hard, it’s 2014 for goodness sake.”
Meterfy just focuses on numbers. Not text, not images, not video. Just numbers numbers numbers, beautiful numbers.
“Google have their Knowledge Graph, Bing the Entity Engine. These big semantic engines are all great for certain things, but struggle with the Esoteric, Ephemeral, Eclectic (and probably other words beginning with E),” he adds.
What about Q&A sites that are designed to be more focused than a search engine trawl?
“Ask.fm, Jelly, Yahoo Answers, ChaCha — they all suffer from snarkiness, sarcasm, spam, flippant responses, a need to match the asker with the answerer,” counters Walsham. “Meterfy just focuses on numbers. Not text, not images, not video. Just numbers numbers numbers, beautiful numbers. If you only focus on numbers you can do things very differently.”
What does he mean by differently? That’s about the consistency of the results, he says. Numbers allow for more certainty that a particular piece of crowdsourced data is accurate (and therefore that it could offer wider utility) — more so than if you’re trying to deal in crowdsourced text or multimedia.
He gives the example of asking users to submit data about the current U.S. president. Text and multimedia answers allow for too much responder leeway. While video responses would require large amounts of processing power to analyze what you’re looking at, and while crowdsourced numbers won’t always be right, the more responses you get the more certain you can be which of the numbers is the right number.
“How many presidential terms has Obama served?” Nine people say 2. One person takes it too literally and tells you 1 (i.e. he hasn’t finished / served his full 2nd term yet). But now you’re in business, you can be pretty confident the answer is 2. You can do simple maths on numbers,” says Walsham.
“The Wisdom of Crowds is much easier to extract when working with numbers,” he adds.
That wisdom will be offered to other developers in future via a Meterfy API. “Imagine you’re interested in a particular number and when it changes the new value shows up on your Pebble watch,” he says. “Who knows what people might dream up when combined with IFTTT?”
In the meantime there’s the site itself — now open for business (or rather public usage). There’s no business model currently. That’s being put on the back burner while Meterfy focuses on exciting people about numbers and getting them contributing to its numerical databanks.
What about the accuracy of submissions from a user point of view? After all, there’s that little phrase, ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. What’s to stop all sorts of numerical junk or spam being submitted and passed off as fact? Walsham says there are a variety of signals Meterfy can use to try to keep quality up, and which users can rely on to crunch the site’s numbers intelligently.
“There are all sorts of signals we can use, I’ll be looking to encourage people to attribute a source for starters,” he says. “Also, if the numbers are contributed by an account set up by the WHO, you might want to emphasise them a bit more when it comes to numbers on disease…. Even if you don’t know that an account is owned by some authoritative organization you can still infer a lot.”
“You can do stats on crowdsourced numbers to start to get a good idea of trust. It’s much harder for something like Wikipedia that mainly deals in text,” he adds.
There’s a calm and clarity to the Meterfy website that’s certainly appealing in our data-soaked times — complemented by minimalist web design. It’s functional, utilitarian, pared back to bare essentials to allow the numbers to do the talking. The result can be eclectic and rather surreal, as some very different numbers wing in to search results.
Here are some of the numbers surfaced by a search for death, for instance:
The site displays each crowdsourced data point on its own card, with the number getting pride of place and any associated paraphernalia (e.g. context, source, submitter) ranged around the margins.
If you’re looking for a particular stat, it’s quick to parse the search results. And if you’re just browsing idly, new tidbits of knowledge pop out at you with refreshing ease. If you want to contribute numbers you have to register — which should presumably allow Meterfy to keep a check on spammers.
The one thing with the site, at this nascent point, is there aren’t that many numbers in Meterfy’s databanks. Walsham and his co-founder have built it — now they need the number-loving nerds to come and contribute.
“I’d love Meterfy to be the most amazingly diverse set of numbers you can look at on the planet,” says Walsham when asked who the site is for.
He points, by way of example, to a couple of current submissions that illustrate some of the diversity: “From my friend, a CERN physicist: https://meterfy.com/numbers/jGrelNzErm-pieces-in-a-lego-death-star – from my colleague, who walks to work across the river every morning https://meterfy.com/numbers/o4Njzc1N47-lamp-posts-on-southwark-bridge-london.”
“I hope Meterfy will be an ‘elephant to a blind man‘; people will perceive and use it in different ways,” he adds.
With that sort of philosophy underpinning it, it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with Meterfy.
Just don’t ask me to count the ways.