Allen Razdow, who wrote Mathcad in 1985, has just released his latest tool for engineers and other numerically-inclined professionals: True Numbers, an online service and specification that lets users see and record the meanings and histories behind the numbers they are using.
Say you're an engineer and you're working on a bridge, and in your calculations you need a value for the tensile strength of the steel you want to include in part of the structure. Your company probably has a spec for the material you want, so you grab it and put it into your design. (I'm not an engineer, so please forgive me if I have this process somewhat wrong.)
With True Numbers at work, that constant would have a link to information about it, possibly including the source of the value, tolerances around it, maybe a history of the use of the value in your organization, and possibly an internal discussion of the value.
"Just having a little bit of semantics around numbers has several advantages," Razdow told me, as he explained how his initiative is focused on the social side of engineering: the process before and after an engineer sits down to work through a problem, where he or she needs to know how the work will fit with the work of others.
It sounds a lot like a wiki project, and there are similarities, especially the social angle. But Razdow does not see himself building the one universal database of all numbers, a Wikepedia of constants. Rather, he sees True Numbers as a platform for numerically-inclined businesses to use to get their people in sync on numeric values that matter--as a way to get people to understand what's behind the numbers they use.
Razdow wants the True Numbers system to be open and free for all, but hopes to make money selling enterprise server products to support it.
There's more to True Numbers than just the hyperlinked database of numbers. There's a nearly natural-language system for creating and categorizing entries, which also creates formatting for numbers that can be embedded in online documents. For example, I used True Numbers to create a spec for house paint. I tried "minimum depth of paint layer = 50 microns," and it gave me formatted HTML with a link: 50 μ. The number creator enforces unit integrity. Durations must have a time unit, for example. (Although if you're an engineer and you're relying on True Numbers to make sure your units match, you've got problems.)
Numbers also go into a "numberspace" that categories all entries. Unfortunately, the numberspace browser requires Java and seems to just barely work, and only on Internet Explorer; a more compatible numberspace viewer is being developed.
True Numbers is an interesting experiment in bringing a social space to numbers. If the concept gets traction at engineering or manufacturing companies, and if using True Numbers is not onerous, it could end up supplementing wikis as a collecting point for group intelligence.