Monday, October 20, 2014

Speak Your Piece: By the Numbers

10/06/2013

Photo by Shawn Poynter, "Art" by Tim Marema Statistical Analysis of the Shut-Down: After retrieving the latest available data from the USDA Economic Research Service, Census and Bureau of Economic Analysis, we drew our own conclusions

With 800,000 federal workers going without paychecks and government programs that affect everything from national security to food safety limping along, what I’m going to say next is going to sound like whining:

Because of the government shut-down, I can’t get on the USDA Economic Research Service website.

Wah.

Within the context of my own personal pique, this is most certainly a whine. As Humphrey Bogart’s character says to Ingrid Bergman’s in “Casablanca,” “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of a website editor don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Or words to that effect.

But the closure of key federal websites underscores the critical role government agencies play in collecting and distributing the data that feeds the U.S. economy and democracy. 

Last week I needed some economic numbers on manufacturing and agriculture. That’s the sort of information the USDA’s Economic Research Service serves up by the bushel full. Several times a week I find myself on the ERS website, digging through reams of information – a report on the school lunch program, poverty rates in rural counties or the number of rural people who lack health insurance.

Though I know ERS had the answer to my questions, the virtual front-door to the agency was padlocked, thanks to the government closure. The entire USDA website carries just one page with this message:

“Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available.”

It’s the same at the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Census and several other sites I tried to visit last week. Sorry folks, nobody’s home.

I don’t know why the federal government needs to turn off its websites just because there's no one in the office. The sites don’t require human librarians to retrieve the information I’m requesting. Perhaps this is the administration’s way to make the closure sting a little more, hoping that will lead to increased pressure on Congress to pass a budget resolution.

But others say there are real costs for operations that go on behind the scenes to keep our government websites running. Without technology workers on hand to maintain equipment and monitor traffic, the sites can’t safely operate.

The millions of people who use federal websites every day to find a report, look up a fact or download a photograph from the Library of Congress are out of luck. And journalists, researchers, and state and local governments who look for data to make sense of what’s going on the world are out of luck, too.

The lack of online access to existing data underscores a second and potentially much bigger problem. No new data is being collected.

At USDA, for example, the workers who normally collect and analyze crop data are at home, presumably wondering about their own financial future instead of farmers’. This month the Bureau of Labor Statistics will skip the release of the September unemployment report. They don't know when it will be available, if it is at all.

In the long run, failing to collect and distribute data like this is more than an inconvenience. It’s a potential catastrophe for the local governments and small businesses that use this information to make decisions about the future. The big guys, the Monsanto's of the world, can produce their own. Monsanto, for example, just purchased its own weather company. The rest of us will be flying blind without government agency analysis. 

Even before the government shut-down, there were problems with the amount of data we were collecting, according to the authors of a paper appearing in Choices Magazine Online. Mark D. Partridge, Stephan J. Goetz and Maureen R. Kilkenny write that the sequestration cuts from last year have done away with important county-level data services that inform public and private agencies.

These include the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ report on Local Area Personal Income.

“This is the only source of such data and … [is] vital for many critical economic analyses, including those related to understanding sources of job creation and economic development,” the authors write.

In other words, local and state governments aren’t going to be able to do their jobs as well, and local entrepreneurs and economies could suffer as a result.

The authors note how other data collection was cut in last year’s sequester at the Census, USDA and the Energy Information Administration:

“If these data programs are discontinued, federal, state, and local policymaking will increasingly occur in the dark as policies are implemented in a vacuum of data and knowledge. At a more fundamental level, these data are vital to the existence of a well-informed population that is at the core of any democracy: How else will voters know if the policies put in place by their elected leaders work in their districts, regions, cities, towns and communities?”

That sounds like it amounts to more than a hill of beans, at least to me.

None of this is meant to argue that I’m not a whiner. It’s just that in this case, maybe I’ve got something to whine about.

Without data to contradict my claim, you can just take my word for it.

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.

Comments

Alternative data sources

We've heard from a few folks about some alternatives to the Economic Research Service.

Some ERS reports are archived at Cornel University:     http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/homepage.do

Or there's the "wayback" machine, at www.archive.gov. Enter ers.usda.gov as the URL to find some archived versions of the site. Not all the information is there, however. Or use this link.  Pick a date before the October 1 shutdown to view what's archived.

Finally, check out the Housing Assistance Council's Rural Data Portal at http://www.ruraldataportal.org/ for some data.

Indeed!

Thank you for posting such an important aspect of data collection and use - a perspective in which facts and interpretation eclipse the deluge of information (and opinion) we consume that is without significant content!  In appreciation....