Federal Data Sources Get a Report Card

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Economic development analysts would agree that their work depends on timely and accurate socioeconomic data, especially at the state and local levels. Federal statistical agencies provide much of that information, but their ability to deliver the necessary data has been questioned by critics. In response, the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) sponsored an in-depth assessment of the system for generating regional socioeconomic data.

The assessment, consisting of an Internet survey of 613 data users, five focus groups, and a handful of telephone surveys, identified the demographics of number crunchers, their work with data, and their knowledge of sources. Researchers found that 55.5 percent of users of socioeconomic data work in a practice-oriented organization, such as an economic development agency or planning agency. Another 31.4 percent work in a research-oriented organization, such as a university or an economic research center.

Dennis McKee, president of the County Economic Research Institute (CERI) in Johnson County, Kansas, says he works with socioeconomic data every day (71 percent of the survey's respondents identified themselves as "frequent" users). And like most number-crunchers, McKee cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), and the U.S. Census Bureau as the data sources he uses most. Ninety-five percent of those polled say they use Census data, 82 percent rely on info from the BLS, and 76 percent use data from the BEA.

Participants were asked to rate federal data sources for usefulness, accessibility, accuracy, detail, and timeliness. The Census Bureau scored high for usefulness, with virtually all respondents recognizing the data's value, but lost points for timeliness. The most frequent complaint: the long time lag between the data collection and publication.

Users of BLS information appreciate the frequency and timeliness of the bureau's monthly series on employment figures and, in general, have few complaints about time lag. When it comes to detail, however, a significant number of participants want the BLS to provide finer geographic detail.

There may be unresolved issues, but McKee isn't complaining. Having personally worked with some data providers outside the United States, he says, "U.S. data users are very spoiled. Compared with the alternatives in other parts of the world, I'd give [the U.S. federal agencies] a ten."

For more information, contact the U.S. Economic Development Administration at (202) 482-5081 or visit www.doc.gov/eda.

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