Federal Statistics at Your Fingertips

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Good news for weary data hounds! Searching for every last relevant government statistic just got easier. Several federal organizations have created new data search hubs on the Internet, and Lexis-Nexis, a subscriber-based service, has expanded its coverage of government numbers. On some government sites, users can even manipulate the data to get the particular display needed.

Federal data provide the bedrock for research about consumers, manufacturing and productivity, the stock market, media use, and most social trends. Even when marketers collect their own data for studies, federal data is used to benchmark results.

But there are some 70 federal agencies that publish data, and diligent searchers are hard-pressed to wade through all the results. In the past two years, federal agencies have posted a rich array of current information on the Internet, from the latest press releases to a wide range of historical results.

The issue is finding what you need. General search engines like Alta Vista, Excite, Lycos, and Yahoo list thousands of places that might have what you want. But only a few may actually have your answer. The new hubs deal with this problem by organizing and categorizing resources and taking you to the right place.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT HUB Each hub is targeted to users with distinct needs. They differ in the kind, coverage and timeliness of indexing. Some hubs tell you where to go for information. Others take you right there and present the results on your computer screen, or pipe the relevant files into your hard drive.

The key to choosing where to go is to pick a hub that matches your question. Here are a few of the new hubs, along with their capabilities and limitations.

The Statistical Universe is created by the Congressional Information Services (CIS) and is available to the public from Lexis-Nexis. Both are owned by Reed Elsevier. The Statistical Universe is available either as a Web-based service (www.cispubs.com) or through the Lexis-Nexis STATIS Library.

Statistical Universe builds on the CIS American Statistics Index (ASI), which researchers have used for decades. But unlike the ASI, which is a catalog of materials, this year the Statistical Universe began displaying the actual results from about 60 percent of the reports available. Earlier material, dating back to the 1970s, is catalogued but only about 2,000 of these reports from 1995 to 1997 can be accessed directly. (CIS is still adding material from this time period.)

Using the Statistical Universe is like having a library card catalog that gets inside the books to take you to the page or table you are looking for. Once there, users can display the specific material or download the entire report in PDF format.

The service has all of the benefits and some of the problems of an online library catalog. For example, editors working for CIS catalog all the material, so the assignment of material to subject categories and its identification with an agency may vary according to the decisions made by individual indexers.

The statistical universe has all of the benefits and some of the problems of an online library catalog.

So, while the Statistical Universe provides the most comprehensive and fully indexed source for federal stats online, using it requires a significant level of expertise. Even so, it does not have the very latest material, although it is updated more frequently than the ASI.

For information and material released yesterday or even last month, the Statistical Universe takes users to the Web site of the originating government office. While this seems like a drawback, it is one advantage of using the Statistical Universe directly on the Web, since the version on the classic Lexis-Nexis lacks these links.

The Statistical Universe also offers a state and private database of statistical results. This database covers statistics in state government reports, association and university publications and trade journals. From 1998 onward, this service will include access to the full text (including tables and graphs) of relevant state government reports.

CIS and Lexis-Nexis are offering the Statistical Universe to colleges, universities and libraries as a Web service. Fees to educational institutions are based on the number of students registered.

Researchers without access to an academic library or Lexis-Nexis can get unlimited Internet access (for up to 10 users) for $1,500 per month, or pay $38 per search of the whole database. Once a search is run, users can view every resulting document and attachment for no additional charge. Searches limited to a particular subject area are charged at lower cost. For example, the fee for searching banking-only related material (ASIBNK) is $12.

MORE SITES, FOR FREE Users looking for a particular recent report or those who know which agency issued the data they are looking for might be better served by first checking with the free government Web sites.

A good place to start is FEDSTATS (www.fedstats.gov), which has links to the 70 federal agencies recognized by the Office of Management and Budget as issuing statistical data. This site's search engine covers reports from the 14 major statistical agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Commerce, and Bureau of Labor Statistics, and provides links to all the other agencies. The best strategy is to check use these links because the search engine only updates material about once a month.

The FEDSTATS site includes a subject directory called "A to Z" that can locate agency information based on your topic of interest. While this is an important advantage, the coverage of this index is largely limited to the 14 major government agencies. Users might therefore miss data issued by other agencies.

If you're looking for information related to subjects in the news, try the White House Briefing Room (www.whitehouse.gov/WH/ html/briefroom.html). On the page are two choices, one for economic issues (www.whitehouse.gov/fsbr/esbr.html) and one for social issues and statistics (www.whitehouse.gov/ fsbr/ssbr.html). These sites provide an overview of the most newsworthy trends.

STAT-USA, the site maintained by the U.S. Department of Commerce (www.stat-usa.gov) provides access to fast-breaking results related to trade and the economy. This is the place to find economic indicators five minutes after they are released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Bureau of the Census, or the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The site also maintains an array of trade-related results with direct access to the full text of press releases and announcements and the National Trade Data Bank.

While you can get access to this service without charge at more than 1,000 depository libraries, direct desktop access can be had for $150 per year.

CREATE YOUR OWN TABLES Government agencies will soon begin to issue important data in electronic format on the Internet, rather than publish it, and the 2000 Census is a prime example. The Census Bureau intends to skip publication of several volumes of data and instead offer it via the Internet.

As well, agencies are experimenting with programs that allow users to retrieve their own tables rather than using those created by the government. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau have teamed up to provide the Ferret system (ferret.bls.census.gov). Users specify the particular table format and information they want and Ferret provides it.

These new resources will greatly enhance researchers' access to statistical results. Similar resources also exist for state and local material and international sources. These advances will be accelerated when libraries, companies, and the government agree on standard ways to present data on the Net.

This wealth of information makes it possible for many more people to find relevant data. However, skilled information specialists save searching resources and time. At the end of the day, researchers will still want to get on the phone and talk with data collectors to be sure they understand the numbers they are using.

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