Faith in government data is slipping

One of the less noticed effects of the US shutdown has been the major disruption it has caused to government data collection. Since the shutdown came into effect on 1 October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has stopped collecting price data and has also ceased its review of last month’s data. According to Forbes, it is very possible that the federal agency will not produce a consumer price index for October, resulting in a gaping hole in the country’s economic records that will hinder the decision making ability of politicians and businesses.

jonny bacon

Today Forbes and other business publications (The Financial Times and Wall Street Journal) are running stories about Premise, a US start-up that is challenging traditional economic data models by generating real-time information. The Google Ventures-backed company does this by gleaning price data from global ecommerce sites and by crowdsourcing data from people using Android phones in retail locations around the world. It can then provide real-time updates on price and inflation changes, allowing corporations and governments to react more quickly.

Tracking macroeconomic trends in this way would appear to make sense for today’s ‘always on’ brands. After all, companies can already track metrics like brand reputation in real-time through a variety of tools, so why not have a constant eye on the bigger economic picture? The lag-time in receiving government data, which is often revised upwards or downwards at a later date, could also encourage firms to explore alternatives.

However, it’s also clear that understanding the minutiae of every price fluctuation won’t be of the utmost concern to all brands. One of the charts provided for free on the Premise website is a price index tracker for Head & Shoulders shampoo in the USA. This kind of real-time intelligence might be highly valuable to a parent company like Procter & Gamble, allowing it to adapt to market changes and coordinate its resources more quickly. For smaller companies, though, a solution like Premise could mean yet more ‘big data’ for them to get lost in.

Faith in the government data model is certainly not dead, as it still provides the most standardised and comprehensive picture of wider economic trends. But in the digital age, the ability of brands to track market fluctuations and react is becoming more immediate. When governments shut down, the data continues to flow and private sector operators are now filling the void.

Today (15 October) is the last day to enter the Data Strategy Awards 2014. For a full list of the categories and instructions on how to enter, click here.

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