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Is America’s Databook About to Die?

Saddened to come across this piece by Robert J. Samuelson (HT: Messiah librarian and friend Beth Transue) about the impending death of the “Statistical Abstract of the United States”. The abstract (available, and searchable, online here) makes publicly available all sorts of data from the Census Bureau. Unfortunately, it looks like the Abstract will be a victim of the budget cuts, even though it will save relatively little money, while hiding mounds of data that has long been publicly available. In an era where it is often tough to tell how reliable online data is, this is the kind of resource that undergrad students could use to find reliable data when asked to find data for analysis using statistical methods discussed in class (as I usually do with second semester statistics students here at Messiah College). I also wonder if there are laws that require public disclosure of this type of data. Here’s a bit from the article:

The Census Bureau argues that it is condemned to painful triage. It has to choose between its basic job of devising surveys and collecting statistics about economic, social and governmental conditions and the less-important task of publicizing the results. Aside from conducting the population census every decade, the Census Bureau performs the surveys that — among other things — provide numbers on employment, voting, business, health insurance coverage and economic output.

Writing on his blog, Census Director Robert Groves says that the bureau “must find every way possible to become more efficient.” The Obama administration cut the agency’s 2012 budget, and Congress is pressing for deeper reductions. Already, Census has decided to shut six of its 12 regional centers at an eventual annual saving of $15 million to $18 million. More data are being collected via the Internet. Still, Census has 6,600 field interviewers, and efficiencies can’t compensate for all spending cuts.

So, the agency’s 2012 budget would eliminate the Statistical Compendia Branch, which compiles the Stat Abstract and other publications (example: the “County and City Data Book”). The cut: $2.9 million and 24 jobs. Both the book and online versions of the Stat Abstract would vanish. This is a mighty big loss for a mighty small saving.

It can be argued that much of what’s in the Stat Abstract is online somewhere. True — but irrelevant. Many government and private databases are hard to access and search, even if you know what you want. Often, you don’t. The Stat Abstract has two great virtues. First, it conveniently presents in one place a huge amount of information from a vast array of government and private sources. For example, the National Fire Protection Association tells us that 30,170 fire departments fought 1.45 million fires in 2008. Second, the footnotes show where to get more information.

And he concludes:

Without the Stat Abstract, statistics will become more hidden, and our collective knowledge will suffer. Must this be? If Census doesn’t rescind its misguided death sentence, the agency could contract with some wealthy private foundation to support the abstract. With a little imagination — not the government’s strong point — sales of the Stat Abstract might even turn a profit. MacArthur Foundation, Gates Foundation: Are you listening?

I joined the Facebook group, as one tangible step. Anyone else know of ways to fight this?


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