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Random numbers

Three ways computers can help you pick a random number

Random numbers

Three ways computers can help you pick a random number

Selecting a random number, such as a winning ticket for a competition, used to mean cutting or tearing up lots of pieces of paper and pulling them out of a container. These days, your computer and the internet can help you.

The problem is that computers aren’t known for being random. Everything a computer or algorithm does follows an operation, so when you ask it to generate something at random in the same way ex-footballers might pull numbered balls from a bag to decide the FA Cup draw, it doesn’t always understand the concept.

However, here are three ways you can perform a digital draw rather than getting out the paper, scissors and top hat:

1. Random.org

The website Random.org claims that it overcomes the difficulties of achieving randomness in computing by using an outside influence – atmospheric noise – to determine its selections.

The website offers paid services, but its free ones are good enough. The most simple and diverse one is perhaps its integer generator, which allows you to select as many as 10,000 numbers in one go within a defined range, such as between 1 and 1,000,000. If you want to have some more fun with the site, you can use it to pick your lottery numbers, create a password, flip a coin, generate a random colour and even compose jazz scales.

2. Google Search

A more visual alternative to this is to simply type “roll a die” into Google. Before the search results, you will see an animation of a six-sided die and the option to “Roll”. You can choose from dice with four, six, eight, ten, twelve and twenty sides, and can ask Google to automatically add a number on to the number it lands on.

You can also add dice and roll several at once, but a word of warning that doing this isn’t a great way of achieving randomness. For example, if you roll two six-sided dice, any number between two and twelve is possible, but there are multiple ways of getting seven (one and six, two and five, three and four etc.) and only one way to get twelve (double six), so you’re not giving every number an equal change of appearing.

3. Microsoft Excel

You can assign random numbers to entities without even having an internet connection, and this may actually be the quickest way to go about it if you already have a list of entities in a spreadsheet.

For example, if you have 100 names of competition entrants in an Excel sheet and want to choose one at random as the winner, you can go into the cell next to each entry and type the function “=RAND()” (without quotation marks). This will generate a random number between 0 and 1. If you then sort that column alphabetically, you can agree that the entry at the top is the winner.

Don’t forget that if you are running a competition, however you go about selecting the winner, it’s good practice to get someone independent to oversee the draw. For more advice on running online competitions and generating interactions, speak to us at Engage Web.

John Murray

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