The US Statistical Abstract Is Worth Saving - & You Should Help


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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

Point / Counterpoint, Freelance Writer

John Barnes has published 30 commercial novels (mostly science fiction,including two collaborations with astronaut Buzz Aldrin), 53 articles in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, more magazine articles than he can remember, and around 30 short stories. Tales of the Madman Underground, Barnes's first "officially" young adult novel, received a Printz Honor Prize at the 2010 American Library Association national convention, and his technothriller, Directive 51, was briefly on the New York Times bestseller list in 2011. His 1990 article, "How to Build a Future," about applying social science forecasting to creating backgrounds for science fiction, has been widely reprinted, and he's still getting email about it. In his twenties, John worked in an R&D shop on reliability math applied to the problems of relational databases and testing/validation; in his thirties he consulted on the connection between document systems design and natural language interfaces. He has taught college courses in theatre, communications, literature, writing, mathematics, political science, economics, and philosophy, and written what was probably the most math-heavy theatre dissertation ever (applying statistical semiotics to the problem of defining basic terms in theatre history). Recently he has pioneered applying statistical semiotics to strategic, analytic, and tactical marketing problems, poll analysis, and trendspotting, and consulted for a variety of firms and government agencies. He lives in Denver, Colorado.  His personal blog is Approachably Reclusive.

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Re: Poor little Statistical Abstract
  • 12/15/2011 2:07:56 AM
NO RATINGS

Response to 1 - Still, nice to have it all in one place, yes?

Response to 2 - Touché.

Re: Poor little Statistical Abstract
  • 12/14/2011 10:34:59 PM
NO RATINGS

Hi Joe,

I didn't notice these newer posts until now and want to respond to a couple of points here specifically:

1. It is my understanding that the data used in the Abstract is mainly from other sources so someone drawing the data from those sources independently should receive the same data.

2. Are you suggesting that governments can never have ulterior motives for the way that they collect and arrange data?

Re: statistical abstract
  • 12/2/2011 1:28:05 PM
NO RATINGS

Given all the antipathy towards the Census in 2010, I'd be surprised if this isn't an empty political move.

Re: Poor little Statistical Abstract
  • 12/2/2011 1:26:54 PM
NO RATINGS

Fair enough, Shawn re: your clarification.

Nonetheless, I would posit that "I've never used it and I don't know anyone who has" is not really a convincing argument.

Honestly, I was unaware of its existence until recently; now that I know about it, I want to use it.

And it's nice to have a government statistical abstract instead of studies by companies and trade organizations who may not be using large enough sample sizes and/or possibly have an ulterior motive.

Re: statistical abstract
  • 12/1/2011 2:25:48 PM
NO RATINGS

I've already said too much on the counterpoint side, but I want to address one point made on this side too:

"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..."

I can assure you that the employees in the Statistical Compendia Branch of the Census Bureau are devastated by the loss of Statistical Abstract, and not just because they're losing their jobs (the entire branch was slated for elimination, not just this one publication).  Their entire professional lives' work was dedicated to creating the best source of statistical data about American life from A to Z, and they succeeded.  It was the ones at the top who didn't understand how vital it was.

Re: Data append
  • 11/30/2011 10:16:32 PM
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I wonder the same. If this data is included in mailing list information it will most definately disappear along with the statistical data.

Data append
  • 11/30/2011 10:00:29 PM
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John I was also wondering are data appending companies using the abstract for data enrichment processes.

Abstract usage
  • 11/30/2011 9:56:51 PM
NO RATINGS

Beth/Shawn I didn’t use it directly but an analyst I was working with used the information to help me create some modeling for a business case. It can be very useful, there may be some efficiency to be gained in the process to get the data and reduce to cost of producing the data but they should consider its elimination and its impacts.

Re: statistical abstract
  • 11/30/2011 4:59:11 PM
NO RATINGS

John,

If indeed the abstract is a valuable resource and everything I say is incorrect, then this offers a wonderful entrepreneurial opportunity for someone with the vision and skill to execute it. I would suspect that the data can be collected much more efficiently and at a much lower cost than the Feds are now managing and if the demand for the data is there a private company should be able to pick up where Uncle Sam left off and produce a more valuable abstract with even better features simply by listening to users. Know anyone who might be up for the challenge?

Re: Poor little Statistical Abstract
  • 11/30/2011 4:18:19 PM
NO RATINGS

Hi Joe, John and Maryam,

To clarify my counterpoint post on this topic, I wouldn't argue the killing of the Statistical Abstract is a necessity or pretend that its elimination as a cost cutting measure is anything more than an empty political gesture virtually meaningless in the face of the overall debt. Instead, my focus in the post is that the elimination of the abstract is essentially meaningless, in my opinion, like the dying of printed newspapers and other minor technological changes that people seem to wring their hands about these days. In my nearly two decades in the newspaper business, I do not believe I ever consulted the abstract nor did any other journalist I knew. This is not to say that we were without data for our stories only that, during my era in print, we had already reached a place where there was so much data to draw stories from that finding a source was never an issue. In many cases, these sources may have included the very organizations from which the abstract collected its data in the first place, organizations that, in the interim, had increasingly been using new Web technology and other means to distribute their data directly making the abstract gradually more and more obsolete. Or they could have been among the many smaller non-profit or educational organizations that have become an important part of the information landscape focused on a particular issue and taking and analyzing that information in a variety of ways to illustrate varying perspectives. Those who would argue that a single source is more efficient or (worse yet) more reliable should remember the benefits of weighing data from multiple sources and also Washington's proven propensity for managing data with a political agenda.

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