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

10/14/09Follow @wroush

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1 in 154.5 (US, 1700 – 2008).” “The odds a high school honor student will cheat on a test at least twice in a year are 1 in 2.86 (US, 2008).” “The odds a person will be murdered in a year are 1 in 17,590 (US, 2003).”

Book of Odds is also destined to become a rich source of material for Cliff Clavin-style barroom exclamations, wager-settling, and general head-scratcher trivia. Did you think triathlons were grueling? You’re actually far more likely to be kicked to death by a cow than to expire during the Iron Man competition. (There were 21.5 cattle-related deaths per year in 2003-2007, compared to only 5.1 deaths per year in triathlons.)

In short, Book of Odds has more in common with an insurance company’s actuarial tables than it does with the Web 2.0 universe; Shapiro jokes that it’s “the killer app for the 19th century.” But there’s also plenty about it that’s 21st-century. For one thing, the company built its database of odds statements using semantic middleware from Cambridge Semantics of Cambridge, MA. The system stores a lot of meta-data about each statement, which makes it easier to search, update, organize, and repurpose the information. (But just because the software is “semantic” doesn’t mean it’s drawing inferences, anticipating users’ needs, or making connections between disparate facts in the way a lot of the hype about the so-called semantic Web would have it. It’s just a way to file away data according to its meaning, rather than some abstract address in a database. “We’re somewhere in between Merriam Webster and Wolfram Alpha,” says Shapiro.)

For another thing, Shapiro and his colleagues have some ambitious plans to capitalize on Web 2.0 trends such as personalization and social networking, which create fertile ground for targeted advertising. On one level, the company can target users according to the keywords they’re searching for, just as Google does; people who search for odds statements about cardiovascular disease, for example, might be shown ads for Lipitor.

But the company also has plans to get to know its users on a deeper level. People who set up accounts on the site will be able to create a personal book of odds by bookmarking statistics relevant to their own experience, and the more of these statements they bookmark, the easier it will become for the company to sell Web advertising targeted to their interests. Says Shapiro, “As people fill out their profiles, with the proper protections and anonymization we will be able to provide value”—that is, show tailored ads—”based on detailed knowledge of what matters to them.”

Down the road, Shapiro says the company will also explore other ways to monetize its understanding of its users, possibly including contract research projects. And on a much more immediate basis, the company will earn money by selling personalized merchandise such as T-shirts emblazoned with odds statements.

Shapiro says Book of Odds was born in part out of two convictions—that it’s difficult to translate the statistical data we all hear everyday into something more meaningful, and that the traditional media underestimate most audience members’ ability to deal with numbers. “If a doctor gave you information about the odds of this or that affecting you, you have no place to turn to figure out … Next Page »

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

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