A statistical needle in a bureaucratic haystack

8th June, 2013

The data aren’t useful because they’re spread across a gazillion spreadsheets, says Tim Harford

‘Finding government statistics is not easy. Both expert users and occasional users struggle to navigate their way through the multiple places in which statistics are published.’ UK House of Commons public administration select committee report, May 2013

How hard can it be to find a few statistics? And since when is this a matter for a parliamentary committee?

You’ve obviously never tried to use the Office for National Statistics website. Try a simple-sounding query – such as what households are currently spending in a week, or retail price inflation for the past 50 years – and you are highly unlikely to get anywhere using the search window. It’s like Google on an acid trip, throwing several thousand random results at you.

It can’t be that hard.

I recently sat down with one of the UK’s finest economic journalists, Evan Davis of the BBC, and we tried to get the results we wanted either through the search window or by trying to second-guess the tormented mind of the person who constructed the branches of the database’s hierarchy. It was hopeless. Even when Mr Davis used his expertise to shortcut the process, we found ourselves thwarted at every turn. (As an aside, Google delivered the correct result in seconds.)

I am sure Chris Giles, the FT’s economics editor, would not be defeated so easily.

Perhaps not, but Mr Giles testified to the public administration committee and took the trouble to run through, step by step, just how difficult it would be to find the answer to a simple, practical statistical question – such as whether unemployment today is lower or higher than it was in the mid-1990s. For an expert user, who knows that the relevant code for the data in question is MGSX, finding an answer to that question is slow and awkward. For a more typical user, finding an answer might be impossible.

Let’s return to the question of why a parliamentary committee should care?

It’s encouraging that MPs do care, because professional researchers at the Commons library will do all the hard work for them and they need never do battle with the ONS website. Most other people have to do the leg work themselves; and, if the ONS site is hard to use, they will turn to other sources, which are more likely to be wrong or to contain partisan spin.

Why is this such a hard problem?

I suspect the ONS is making it look harder than it really is, but making statistics accessible isn’t a straightforward task. Our official statistics have their own longstanding categorisation system, which makes little sense to the lay person, so a user-friendly navigation system must help someone sidestep that. There’s a lot of data available, in principle, and there are many different ways in which users might reasonably want to see them presented, not to mention the difficulty of dealing with synonyms such as “family spending” instead of “household expenditure”. All that said: the ONS website is a national embarrassment.

Should I conclude that other countries make a better job of this?

The US’s Fred database (short for Federal Reserve Economic Data) is well-respected for being comprehensive and easy to use. The World Development Indicators, under the guardianship of the World Bank, are impressive if fiddly. But the truth is that this stuff isn’t terribly easy.

I thought the government was going to release more data. Does that mean the problem will get worse?

Demand for data can only rise, so the ONS needs to get its house in order. But the government’s “open data” plan is a somewhat separate issue. That sort of data released could contain almost anything – for instance, the real-time location of every bus in London, to enable applications and websites to help people plan their journeys. Handy stuff – but processed official statistics, which are quality-assured, are something different.

Aren’t government departments and councils meant to be releasing highly detailed data about what they’re spending?

They are – for every item more than £25,000. But the data aren’t very useful at the moment. They are often a bit unreliable and spread across a gazillion spreadsheets. There are many such problems but, as with the ONS website, we are promised improvements in due course. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as they say. I’ll grant the government this much: the steps have been in the right direction.

Also published at ft.com.

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