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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what that means,” Shapiro says. At the same time, he says, “Everywhere you turn, you read about how people can’t understand numbers. I thought to myself, ‘How many times have we said in the past that people couldn’t do something, only to find that when they are given the right tools they can do very well.’”

In the case of the Book of Odds, one of the main tools is juxtaposition. The semantic search capabilities of the site mean that once you find one odds statement, it’s easy to find others with similar odds, giving a more intuitive feel for the meaning of each statistic. As Shapiro writes in his “Founder’s Blog” at Book of Odds, “The odds a female rape victim is under 12 [1 in 3.45] are about the same as a 100-year-old man dying in the next 12 months [1 in 3.56]. By placing similar odds beside each other without regard to their content, the juxtaposition sheds light for a reader with familiarity with any of the subjects.”

But while the content of Book of Odds reflects Shapiro’s personal interest in numbers, the venture is also the fruit of decades of study of business operations and consumer behavior. Shapiro has done stints as a director at Arthur D. Little (ADL) and Pittiglio, Rabin, Todd, & Mcgrath (PRTM), both well-known strategic and operations consulting companies based in Boston and Waltham, MA, respectively. The startup’s chief operations officer, Louise Firth Campbell, is a 30-year veteran of ADL with a background in business strategy, technology, marketing, and public policy, including healthcare and risk management. “We come with deeply died-in-the-wool instincts about how to make money and how to run successful businesses,” says Shapiro. “This isn’t a non-profit—it had better support itself or we’ll never be able to do what we mean to do.”

Book of Odds still feels a bit rough around the edges. For certain topics, such as influenza or divorce, there’s an overwhelming list of odds statements, each only slightly different from the next, so it may be hard to find the specific fact you’re looking for. For other subjects, there’s no data whatsoever: the site’s database of 250,000-plus odds statements includes nothing on the dangers of helicopters, volcanoes, or X-rays, to cite three subjects I searched at random. And quite a few of the odds statements seem to be formulaic reworkings of obscure labor statistics. For example: “The odds an employed person 16 or older in Ohio is an atmospheric or space scientist are 1 in 19,010 (OH, US, 5/2008).”

But with all the management and technology firepower behind the site, together with a huge editorial staff and a well-developed process for generating, checking, and explicating odds statements (the site is peppered with essays that draw together interesting tidbits, like this piece on vanity license plates), Book of Odds is bound to fill out its subject catalog and gain coherence fast. The odds you’ll be hearing more about it over the coming year are 1 in 1.

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

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