Daily Archives: June 10, 2013

‘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.

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