When Worlds Converge: Statistics Agencies Learning from Each Other during the Pandemic

We never know when our worlds are going to converge. I have used this blog to tell you about how BLS operations are continuing—and changing—due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I also plan to tell you about our international activities and will continue writing about the BLS Consumer Price Index (CPI) and other programs. Today, all three of these topics converge into one.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled BLS and statistical agencies worldwide to examine our processes and concepts to ensure the information we collect and publish reflects current conditions. For BLS, this means suspending all in-person data collection and relying on other methods, including telephone, internet, and email. Adding to our toolbox, BLS is now piloting video data collection. To be flexible, we have changed some collection procedures to accommodate current conditions. For example, we are now doing all of our work at home instead of in our offices. We are learning more every day about teleworking more effectively, and we are training our staff as we learn.

Once we collect the data, we are examining how we need to adapt our processing and publication. Will our typical procedures to account for missing data still apply? Will seasonal patterns in the data change due to COVID-19? Will we be able to publish the level of detail our data users have come to expect? These and more are open questions. We will make informed decisions as we learn more about the pandemic’s impact on our data and operations. What I do know is that BLS has a long practice of sharing its procedures and methods, including any changes. We already have extensive information about COVID-19 on the BLS website, and we continue to update that information. We also provide program-specific information with each data release to alert users to any unique circumstances in the data.

Since BLS has long been known for producing gold-standard data, information about our procedures and methods is also of great interest to our international colleagues. In fact, BLS has helped statistical organizations throughout the world with the collection, processing, analysis, publishing, and use of economic and labor statistics for more than 70 years. We provide this assistance primarily by our Division of International Technical Cooperation. They strengthen statistical development by organizing seminars, consultations, and meetings for international visitors with BLS staff. This division also serves as the main point of contact for the many international statistical organizations that compile information, publish comparable statistics worldwide, share concepts and definitions, and work to incorporate improvements and innovations.

A hallmark of our international activities has been onsite seminars at BLS, often attended by a multinational group of statistical experts and those working to become experts. At these seminars, BLS technical staff present details on every aspect of statistical programs, including concept development, sampling, data collection, estimation procedures, publishing, and more. In recent years, funding, travel restrictions, and other limitations have reduced the number of in-person events, replaced to some extent by virtual events. And of course, the current COVID-19 pandemic and related travel restrictions mean all such events are now being held virtually. But they still go on.

Recently, our international operations converged with our COVID-19 response when the International Technical Cooperation staff set up a virtual meeting between BLS staff primarily from our Consumer Price Index program and their counterparts at India’s Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI). They met to discuss challenges in producing consumer price data during the ongoing pandemic. The discussion was largely about methodology: what to do with missing prices and how to adjust weights to reflect real-time shifts in spending that consumers are making in response to the pandemic. It is helpful to hear from worldwide colleagues who are facing similar challenges. These issues are unprecedented, and we know the potential solutions for one country may not be ideal for the nuanced conditions in another country.

In India, for instance, commerce has been limited to essential commodities—food, fuel, and medicine. This will likely leave them unable to publish some indexes. While this is unfortunate in the present time, it is fairly straightforward; they can’t publish what they don’t have. It gets more complicated a year from now. What does it mean to have an annual price change when the denominator is missing? The CPI deals with this by having a fairly robust imputation system—basically “borrowing” price change from similar areas and items—but we will be monitoring the situation closely to make sure our assumptions about what is similar remain valid.

One advantage BLS has over MOSPI is that we are able to collect data by telephone, email, or on the web. MOSPI has traditionally only done in-person collection. Both agencies are transitioning to different modes of collection, but we have significantly greater experience.

Sharing information with our international colleagues, about the CPI and other programs, and about our COVID-19 experience, is a key part of the BLS mission. These worlds continue to converge, not just during organized meetings but also on websites and wikis maintained by statistical organizations and through participation in expert groups and conferences. For example, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe hosts a ”statswiki” that currently has pages dedicated to COVID-19 and Official Statistics. It is a small world after all, and the worldwide social distancing we are all experiencing makes it clear that we are all in this together. And together, BLS and our international colleagues, reacting to COVID-19 and making adjustments to consumer price indexes and other statistics, will continue to provide vital information that tracks changes in the world economy.

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