Amid the thundering rage from professors and reporters about to lose the single best compendium of data in the US, it's time for market researchers to raise our voices, too. We might not be as numerous or as obvious, but we too need the Statistical Abstract of the United States.
Since 1878, when it first appeared in paper form, the Statistical Abstract has been where scholars and reporters go to start their research and settle questions. Compiled by the Census Bureau, the Statistical Abstract reports thousands of different numbers and statistics from 172 federal agencies annually. In the last few decades, it has become available via the Web, allowing you to download data in many machine-readable formats and thus proving itself even more useful.
Reporters, scholars, editors, bureaucrats, and students live by it. So when Obama-appointed Census Bureau officials asked Congress to zero out the amount for producing the Statistical Abstract, and the Democratic Senate and Republican House did so, what we witnessed was bipartisan vandalism of the national database. The just-published 2012 Statistical Abstract will be the last one ever -- unless legislators amend the budget now making its way through Congress to put it back in.
Michael Kelley, news editor of the Library Journal, explores the damage this will do to scholarship and research in his piece, "Statistical Abstract Faces an Untimely Death." Nick Capo, a professor writing in a local Illinois paper, and Heather Mallick, a columnist for the Toronto Star, explain what the Statistical Abstract means to journalists. Put Capo's basic observation that the Statistical Abstract costs about $2.9 million per year to produce (or the equivalent of two Tomahawk missiles) next to Change.org's observation that the Statistical Abstract reports $3 billion worth of data -- that's a tenth of 1 percent for accessibility.
Market research analysts use the Statistical Abstract constantly -- or should if they don't. Here are six reasons why.
- The Statistical Abstract supplies the context of other statistics that make your numbers meaningful. To find out if a security system mostly sells in high-crime areas, you merge your own sales records with FBI crime stats from the Statistical Abstract by ZIP code, confirm or deny that hypothesis, and choose or reject that strategy in a matter of minutes.
- The Statistical Abstract enables easy browsing and comparison, putting HUD and FBI numbers about neighborhood crime near each other spatially and informationally. Likewise, if the Commerce Department doesn't have the number you want and the Treasury Department does, that's easy to see.
- The Statistical Abstract lowers time and cost for improving hypotheses. Maybe your market isn't high-crime districts but high-income districts located near high-crime areas (you might need to merge two or three different tables) or areas where local news is highly crime-oriented (the FCC keeps some nice statistics about local broadcast content). Material for alternate hypotheses is easy to find.
- The Statistical Abstract can supply a strategic map for business expansion. Suppose you're a small or midsized business trying to break out from regional to national. The Statistical Abstract can tell you places where populations are similar to your home base, and even where people from your home base have moved in the last couple of decades.
- The Statistical Abstract levels the playing field for small businesses. General Electric or American Express could (and probably will) create a proprietary Statistical Abstract-equivalent for themselves out of pocket change. But Joe's Electric or Sandy's T-shirt Express can't afford what the Statistical Abstract used to give them for free. They'll have to get by without it. Abolishing the Statistical Abstract creates one more lopsided advantage for bigness.
- The Statistical Abstract allows countless investors, marketers, and business people to correct for and re-estimate government economic statistics. All governments, all the time, shade the truth about the economy, but business decisions need to be based on reality. The Statistical Abstract is where business analysts go to get the numbers that let them connect to reality.
Finally, remember that the value of data never fully recovers after an interruption. When you stop recording observations, you just have to hope nothing will happen. Just by simple arithmetic, somewhere in those thousands of never-to-be-assembled-in-one-place statistics for 2012, dozens of once-in-a-century events will go unnoticed, because there is no easy place to notice them. How many of those were a chance for an innovative product, service, or other opportunity? How many were something you wish your analyst had known about?
If you don't want to lose this vital resource for your work as an analyst -- or for your analytic team -- the time to say something is right now. At the least, add your support to Change.org's online petition, but also consider writing notes to your congressman or senator and to the president. My guess is that this is a case of a few lower-level bureaucrats not wanting to do the work anymore because they don't know how vital it is, and all saving the Statistical Abstract will take is a little bit of noise. And if the noise comes from those of us with a lot of money in the game, maybe it will be our voices that tip the balance.