Book of Odds Comes Out of Stealth to Make Intuitive Sense of Statistics—But Can It Sell Ads?

10/14/09Follow @wroush

Despite the fact that “Google it” is now synonymous with “look it up,” Google itself isn’t a primary reference source. It merely aggregates facts and claims from everywhere else. If you wanted to create a genuinely new reference work on the scale of a dictionary or an encyclopedia—even if it lived online—you’d still have to do it the old-fashioned way: by hiring lots of people to do lots of research, writing, and fact-checking.

And that’s exactly what Book of Odds, a startup in downtown Boston, has done. After a remarkable three years in deep-stealth mode, the company is going public today with its website, a compendium of hundreds of thousands of fascinating factoids about the statistics of everyday life, collected and collated by scores of university students from around Boston. Ever wondered what fraction of workplace deaths are caused by flying objects? It’s roughly 1 in 96. And as it happens, 1 in 96 is also the chance that a white woman between 65 and 84 will die of cardiovascular disease in a given year, and the odds that a U.S. male aged 16 or older works in the legal profession.

Amram ShapiroAmram Shapiro, Book of Odds’ founder and president, talked about the company’s plans for its storehouse of statistics for the first time on September 29 at the Web Innovators Group meeting in Cambridge, MA. His presentation won the audience favorite award, beating out social networking site Epernicus and socially networked customer relationship management portal Batchbook. The official launch party for the free, advertising-supported, privately funded website will be held tomorrow at—where else?—the Boston Museum of Science.

Book of Odds is, it must be said, a profoundly odd site. In an era of mindless, automated search engines, it’s an authoritative, highly curated guide to primary data. On an Internet full of YouTube videos and computer-generated virtual worlds, it’s stodgily text-based. In a world where the conventional wisdom says that people can’t cope with math, it’s obsessed with probabilities. It was originally going to be an actual book—but Shapiro says he changed course after an editor from Oxford University Press, publisher of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, advised against old-fashioned paper. (“He said ‘If we were publishing the OED today it would go straight to the Web,’” Shapiro explains.)

If you’ve ever seen the Harper’s Index feature of Harper’s Magazine, you’ll be familiar with the curiosity-piquing quantities that predominate at Book of Odds. The core of the site—its equivalent of dictionary entries—are the “odds statements.” For example: “The odds a golfer will be injured while playing golf in a year are 1 in 644 (US, 2006).” Unexpectedly, that’s higher than the odds of being injured while mountain biking, which are only 1 in 839 per year, according to the site.

Each odds statement includes the specific geography and time span to which it pertains, as well as full attribution. The golf-accident data, for example, is from the National Safety Council, whose staff must keep very busy documenting the myriad hazards of everyday life. In fact, there’s a whole section of Book of Odds devoted to Accidents & Death, along with sections on Health & Illness, Daily Life & Activities, and Relationships & Society.

The site is a veritable treasure trove for worry-warts, pessimists, cynics, and paranoiacs. To wit: “The odds Massachusetts will suffer an earthquake with a magnitude of at least 6.0 in a year are … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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