When first published in 1878, the Statistical Abstract of the United States must have been something to behold. But then, so were the Postal Service and telegraph in their days.
Prodded by the Obama administration, the Census Bureau has announced the scrapping of the annual statistical publication (close to the hearts of many, it would seem) as a cost-cutting measure. Effective Oct. 1, the bureau is no longer collecting data for the statistical compendium, an official site notice reads.
The Statistical Abstract, which the Census Bureau describes as “the authoritative and comprehensive summary of statistics on the social, political, and economic organization of the United States," includes about 1,000 pages of data. It can tell you things like the number of fire departments active in firefighting in 2008 and how many fires they fought that year.
Robert J. Samuelson, an economics columnist for the Washington Post, delineates the abstract's virtues in an August op-ed. It presents a huge amount of information from government and private sources all in one place, and it provides footnotes to the information sources that allow readers to seek more details if they wish.
As unintentional as it may have been, Samuelson makes the greatest case against the Statistical Abstract's continued publication. Many other technologies, organizations, and resources bring together considerable data in one place. Compare the amount of data contained in the listings of a single Google search, for example, to the amount of data contained in the 1,000 printed pages of the Statistical Abstract. And Google presents its data at a cost that's much less (to the public, at least) than the $2.9 million in taxpayer dollars reportedly required to assemble the abstract each year.
Also, as Samuelson observes, this data is all from somewhere else, just like the data brought to you in a Google search or as links in a social network stream. The abstract is, in official words, a “summary” and nothing more. Today, researchers have many more comprehensive summaries of vast amounts of data at their disposal.
What’s behind all this fear that the retirement of a summary of statistical data with a 19th century origin will somehow make us less informed? In an age of government bloat, shouldn't we be embracing this as the cost-saving measure it's intended to be? Well, like the disappearance of news printed in ink on dead trees, I suspect our fear has something to do with our difficulty in separating the tools from the functions they perform.
Possibly as early as the third century BC, a Jewish sect known as the Essenes is believed to have used a group of caves on the shore of the Dead Sea to store a library of 972 texts, including biblical and other documents, on parchment and papyrus scrolls. Today the information would probably fit on your hard drive. Would paper stored in caves be better?
Sure, the abstract contains a lot of neat data all conveniently collected in one place, but it’s all available elsewhere, too -- or could soon be, so long as Washington continues to work toward a goal of transparency. It’s much more important for the analytics community to hold our leaders’ feet to the fire so that vital data is always available in easily accessible form than for us to preserve an archaic tool used to present that data. What do you think?