Dictionary of Numbers extension adds context to numbers

Jul 8, 2013

We read and hear numbers in the news all the time, but it can be hard to imagine what those numbers mean. For example, big numbers, on the scale of billions, are hard to picture in our head, because we don’t typically handle that many things at one time. Most of us have never seen a billion dollars plopped in front of us. The Dictionary of Numbers, a Google Chrome extension by Glen Chiacchieri, can help you out in this department.

I noticed that my friends who were good at math generally rely on “landmark quantities”, quantities they know by heart because they relate to them in human terms. They know, for example, that there are about 315 million people in the United States and that the most damaging Atlantic hurricanes cost anywhere from $20 billion to $100 billion. When they explain things to me, they use these numbers to give me a better sense of context about the subject, turning abstract numbers into something more concrete.

When I realized they were doing this, I thought this process could be automated, that perhaps through contextual descriptions people could become more familiar with quantities and begin evaluating and reasoning about them.

Install the extension, and as shown in the video above, it injects inline descriptions next to numbers in articles. You can also use the search box. Enter “100 meters” and you get “about the height of the Statue of Liberty.” Although still rough around the edges (It seems to find descriptions for a limited index of numbers.), the Dictionary is an interesting experiment in making numbers for relatable.

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