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FCW : October 30, 2012
October 30, 2012 FCW.COM 31 DrillDown A 21st-century approach to democratizing data "Unbelievable jobs numbers... These Chi- cago guys will do anything," Jack Welch tweeted. Not surprisingly, the recent steep drop in the unemployment rate has given rise to conspiracy comments and discussions about how the rate is derived. Maybe the employment rate is in ated. Maybe it is understated for months. Maybe seasonal adjustments play a part. Maybe. Recent "democratizing data" con- cepts hold great promise for improv- ing accountability and even increasing value from the billions of dollars spent on thousands of government data-collection programs. Yet when doubts dominate market-moving, election-shifting data, it is clear that America needs government to change more than how it distributes data. Should government collect the same data and in the same way that it did in the last century? More important, should gov- ernment s central role in collecting and disseminating data be changed? Every day an organization near Bos- ton sends its agents out to collect the prices of thousands of items sold by hundreds of retailers and manufactur- ers around the world. The agents are dozens of servers using software to scrape prices from websites. In near- real time, the price data is collected, stored, analyzed and sent to some of the largest investment and nancial organizations on the planet, including central banks. This is the Billion Prices Project run by two economics professors at the Mas- sachusetts Institute of Technology. With a 21st-century approach, two people can collect and analyze the costs of goods and services purchased in economies all over the world using price data read- ily available online from thousands of retailers. They mimic what consumers do to nd prices via Amazon, eBay and Priceline. The Billion Prices Project does not sample. It uses computer strength to generate a daily census of the price of all goods and services. It routinely predicts price movements three months before the government Consumer Price Index (CPI) announces the same. Beginning in the early 20th century, the Bureau of Labor Statistics responded to the need to determine reasonable cost- of-living adjustments to workers wages by publishing a price index tied to goods and services in multiple regions. Over time, government data collections grew through the best methods available in the 20th century --- surveys and sampling --- and built huge computer databases on a scale only the government could accomplish and afford. Even today, the CPI is based on physically collecting --- by taking notes in stores --- of the prices for a representative basket of goods and services. The manual approach means the data is not available until weeks after consumers are already feeling the impact. The federal government s role as chief data provider has resulted in approxi- mately 75 agencies that collect data using more than 6,000 surveys and regulatory lings. Those data-collection activities annually generate more than 400,000 sets of statistics that are often duplica- tive, sometimes con icting and generally published months after collection. The federal government is still investing in being the trusted monopoly provider of statistical data by developing a single por- tal --- Data.gov --- to disseminate data it The Internet has become a ubiquitous kiosk for posting information. The government's role in collecting and disseminating data should change accordingly. BY CHRISTOPHER J. LYONS AND MARK A. FORMAN " " Non-government entities are increasingly lling the information quality gap, generating the timely, trusted data and statistics that businesses and policy-makers use --- and pay for.
October 15, 2012
November 15, 2012