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Tag Archives: Confidentiality

Answers to Some Recent Questions about BLS Data

I tell anyone who will listen that BLS staff love to talk about our data. We have LIVE people at the end of the phone line (or email request) who are happy to answer questions about BLS data and the methods behind those data. The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped our ability to respond to public questions. Even in our telework posture, we pride ourselves on outstanding customer service. All BLS statistical programs have staff who answer public information requests. We also have a central information staff out of our national office and eight information offices scattered around the country. Yes, we get questions, and we are more than happy to provide answers.

Recently, we’ve received some general questions about our methods, which cover multiple BLS programs. Here are a few of those questions and our answers.

Why does BLS revise published estimates?

One of the hallmarks of BLS economic indicators is their prompt release. We provide a “first look” at a variety of economic conditions, including employment and unemployment, price change, wages, productivity, and more. To release these data in a timely manner, we follow very strict data collection and processing schedules. Data obtained after the collection deadline are not included in the initial release but can be incorporated later. We identify data subject to these revisions as preliminary. Revisions are a necessary part of the statistical estimation process to ensure accuracy.

The Producer Price Index (PPI) recently expanded the amount of revised data available to the public. PPI data are revised for 4 months following initial release, again to account for information received following the initial deadline, thus providing a clearer picture of price change. Until recently, revised data were only available in the fourth month. For example, July data originally published in August would be revised with the November release in December. The expanded data now available show monthly revisions for each of the 4 months following initial release. So, following the initial release of July data in August, revised data for July are available in September, October, and November, before we release final data in December. This change is in response to requests from data users for these interim values.

Other BLS programs release periodic revisions as updated data become available, providing a clearer view of the economy. For example, the Current Employment Statistics program has more information about the monthly revisions to payroll employment data. Details about the methods behind all BLS programs are available in the BLS Handbook of Methods.

Why is it important to respond to BLS surveys?

We carefully design our survey samples to represent the people and businesses in the United States. Without input from these sample members, BLS indicators would not accurately reflect the economic and social conditions in our country. We strive to make completing our surveys as easy as possible, and we often offer multiple ways to provide information. We design survey questions that are easy to understand and answer in a short period of time.

Nearly all of our surveys are voluntary, which means the people, households, and organizations selected can choose whether to participate. We are grateful that the great majority of them agree to participate. The information benefits all of us.

BLS maintains response rate information on our website and updates this information on a regular basis. This information can be very technical, which is why BLS staff stand ready to answer any questions you might have about response rates.

Check out this video to learn more about the importance of responding to BLS surveys.

What effect did the pandemic have on BLS survey participation?

With some careful planning, a lot of hard work, and a little bit of luck, BLS has been able to release all planned data products on schedule, despite the pandemic. We weathered both internal and external challenges. While many of our tasks had been successfully tested in remote environments, we had to change a few processes. Fortunately, those changed processes were successful, and some even spawned innovations we will continue. Externally, we were mindful that many businesses had limited operations or were closed, and many households were preoccupied with illness, childcare, and other responsibilities. Response rates did decline. Since the start of the pandemic, each BLS program has provided more information about survey response and methods. In some cases, response rates have recovered from their pandemic lows, but many are still below levels before the pandemic.

What steps has BLS introduced to combat weak survey response during the pandemic?

BLS takes many different approaches to data collection and works closely with our partners in the states and other statistical agencies to obtain high quality information from businesses and households. Traditionally, some data collection is done in person, where BLS builds a relationship with survey respondents and shows them the importance of response. BLS also offers many options designed to make ongoing response easy, including use of the internet, email, file transfer, and others. At the start of the pandemic, BLS suspended all in-person data collection. We were fortunate that many businesses, even many of those with limited operations during the pandemic, maintained electronic records they provided to BLS, allowing us to continue producing key economic data.

For our part, the pandemic provided an opportunity to accelerate our ongoing move away from paper and mail. We used phone and email to contact respondents and obtain their data. We also began to experiment with video data collection, a process that proved very successful and is now a vital part of our data collection toolkit. While we started slowly with video collection, and took particular care to ensure confidentiality, we quickly discovered huge benefits. BLS staff can use video communications systems to share their screen, demonstrate BLS confidentiality procedures, show data products, and more. In person, shuffling all these papers can be a little unwieldy. With a little practice and planning, video data collection has proved invaluable.

BLS also has explored ways of capturing information without burdening respondents at all. In some cases, we are able to use web scraping to obtain needed data. We are also exploring supplemental data sources, such as data aggregators and crowd sourcing websites. We have accelerated these explorations during the pandemic. We are learning a lot and obtaining more and more data through these alternative approaches, which can mitigate the effects of declining response rates on data quality. These efforts will ensure that BLS data products remain of high quality with enough detail for stakeholders, while lessening respondent burden.

We will return to some in-person data collection over time and will use those interactions to build ongoing relationships. But we also will continue to advance these innovations, such as video collection and web scraping, as options to make data collection more efficient in the future.

It’s a Small Statistical World

BLS is one of several U.S. statistical agencies that follow consistent policies and share best practices. These agencies also frequently work with their statistical counterparts around the world to develop standards, share information, troubleshoot issues, and improve the quality of available data. At BLS, our Division of International Technical Cooperation coordinates these activities. The division helps to strengthen statistical development by organizing seminars, consultations, and meetings for international visitors with BLS staff. The division also provides BLS input on global statistical initiatives. Without missing a beat, most of these activities moved to virtual platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite some time-zone challenges, which often lead to early morning or late-night video meetings, BLS continues to play an active role on the world stage.

World map

Today I’m highlighting some recent international engagements, which have included our colleagues from Australia, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, Mexico, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. These events are often mutually beneficial, as they provide opportunities for BLS staff to learn more about the experiences of our international counterparts.

  • BLS staff met with a former Australian Bureau of Statistics official who was working with the U.K. Statistics Authority and the U.K. Office for National Statistics to research best practices in implementing international statistical standards. They discussed the international comparability of domestic industry and product classifications, data quality and publishing, and the independence of statistical organizations.
  • Staff from the Australian Bureau of Statistics are planning to revise their household expenditure survey. They turned to BLS experts, who shared their insights and experiences in improving our Consumer Expenditure Surveys.
  • Staff from the Statistical Division at the United Nations asked BLS to comment on issues surrounding the classification of business functions; household income, consumption, and wealth; and unpaid household service work. Input from staff in multiple offices will inform the BLS response to this request.
  • BLS staff, our counterparts in Canada and Mexico, and colleagues from across Europe and Asia discussed data ethics in a meeting organized by the Centre for Applied Data Ethics at the U.K. Statistics Authority. Country representatives summarized how their organizations assess ethical considerations when producing official statistics. The U.K. Statistics Authority identified the following ethical considerations as being especially important:
Public Good: The use of data has clear benefits for users and serves the public good.
Confidentiality, Data Security: The data subject's identity (whether person or organisation) is protected, information is kept confidential and secure, and the issue of consent is considered appropriately.
Methods and Quality: The risks and limits of new technologies are considered and there is sufficient human oversight so that methods employed are consistent with recognised standards of integrity and quality.
Legal Compliance: Data used and methods employed are consistent with legal requirements.
Public Views and Engagement: The views of the public are considered in light of the data used and the perceived benefits of the research.
Transparency: The access, use and sharing of data is transparent, and is communicated clearly and accessibly to the public.

From its founding, BLS has understood the importance of these issues. Our written policies and strategic plans reflect these principles. They also are reflected in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act and the newly formed Scientific Integrity Task Force, which includes BLS staff among its members.

And that’s just some of what we did this summer! BLS has a longstanding reputation for providing expert training and guidance and participating in international statistical forums. We also provide BLS data to the International Labour Organization and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, among others. These organizations often feature BLS statistics in their databases. Since its inception, BLS has provided technical assistance to our international counterparts, starting with our first Commissioner, Carroll Wright, who directed BLS staff to advise foreign governments establishing statistical agencies. Commissioner Wright was also a member of several international statistical associations, a tradition that continues today. Currently, BLS staff participate in many international expert groups, including the Voorburg Group on Service Statistics, the Wiesbaden Group on Business Registers, and the International Conference of Labor Statisticians. These groups provide BLS staff with opportunities to discuss topics of common interest, to propose and learn about innovative solutions to data measurement issues, and to influence discussions about important economic concepts.

BLS began providing technical assistance in earnest in the late 1940s as part of the U.S. government’s European Economic Recovery Program. BLS staff planned and conducted productivity studies and helped European governments establish their own economic statistics. Similar efforts continue today for our colleagues around the world, many of whom have participated in our international training programs. While we have temporarily halted in-person training programs because of the pandemic, our staff plan to provide more training modules virtually in response to the popularity of these programs. Over the last 10 years, BLS has provided training or other technical assistance to over 1,700 seminar participants and other visitors from 95 countries. More recently, the International Monetary Fund has asked BLS to provide training on Producer Price Indexes and Import and Export Price Indexes to our colleagues abroad.

I am incredibly grateful to all the subject matter experts throughout BLS who provide invaluable assistance with these activities and help maintain our excellent reputation in the international statistical community. We look forward to your continued support as BLS strengthens important international relationships, virtually for now, and hopefully in person soon.

Celebrating World Statistics Day 2020

At the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we always enjoy a good celebration. We just finished recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month. We are currently learning how best to protect our online lives during National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. We even track the number of paid holidays available to workers through the National Compensation Survey. Today I want to focus on a celebration that happens once every 5 years — World Statistics Day. While there may not be parades, special meals, or department store sales to honor this day, we at BLS and our colleagues worldwide take time out on October 20, 2020, to recognize the importance of providing accurate, timely, and objective statistics that form the cornerstone of good decisions.

United Nations logo for World Statistics Day 2020

World Statistics Day, organized under the guidance of the United Nations Statistical Commission, was first celebrated in October 2010. This year, the third such event, focuses on “connecting the world with data we can trust.” At BLS, the trustworthy nature of our data and processes has been a hallmark of our work since our founding in 1884. Our first Commissioner, Carroll Wright, described our work then as “conducting judicious investigations and the fearless publication of results.” That credo guides us to this day. As the only noncareer employee in the agency, I am surrounded by a dedicated staff of data experts  whose singular mission is to produce the highest-quality data, without regard to policy or politics. BLS and other statistical agencies throughout the federal government strictly follow Statistical Policy Directives that ensure we produce data that meet precise technical standards and make them available equally to all. For nearly 100 years, we have regularly updated our Handbook of Methods to provide details on data concepts, collection and processing methods, and limitations. Transparency remains a hallmark of our work.

The United States has a decentralized statistical system, with numerous agencies large and small spread throughout the federal government. Despite this decentralization, the agencies work together to improve statistical methods and follow centralized statistical guidance. This partnership was recently strengthened by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, which reinforced how the statistical agencies protect the confidentiality of businesses and households that provide data. The Act also designated heads of statistical agencies, like myself, as Statistical Officials for their respective Departments. In my case, my BLS colleagues and I advise other Department of Labor agencies on statistical concepts and processes, while continuing to stay clear of policy discussions and decisions.

World Statistics Day is a global event, so this is a good time to share some examples where BLS participates in statistical activities around the world:

  • We have regular contact with colleagues at statistical organizations around the world. Just recently, I participated in a very long-distance video conference on improvements to the Consumer Price Index. For me, it was 6:00 a.m., and I made sure I had a mug of coffee handy; for my colleagues in Australia, it was 6:00 p.m., and I’m certain their mug had coffee as well.
  • We have a well-established training program for international visitors, focusing on our processes and methods. We hold training sessions at BLS headquarters (or at least we did before the pandemic), we send experts to other countries, and we are exploring virtual training. We are eager to share our expertise and long history.
  • We participate in international panels and study groups, such as those organized by the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and others, with topics ranging from measuring the gig economy to use of social media.
  • We provide BLS data to international databases, highlighting employment, price, productivity and related information to compare with other countries.

And that’s just a taste of how BLS fits into the World of Statistics. As Commissioner, I’ve had the honor to represent the United States in conferences and meetings across the globe. The BLS staff and I also hold regular conversations with statistical officials worldwide. In a recent conversation with colleagues in the United Kingdom, we were eager to learn about each other’s changes in the ways we provide data and analyses to our customers. These interactions expand everyone’s knowledge and keep the worldwide statistical system moving forward.

To celebrate World Statistics Day, I asked some BLS cheerleaders if they would join me in a video message about the importance of quality statistical data. Here’s what they had to say:

In closing, let’s all raise a toast to World Statistics Day, the availability of high-quality and impartial data, and the dedicated staff worldwide who provide new information and analysis every day.

Happy World Statistics Day!

Data Privacy Day is Every Day at BLS

There are many commemorative days, weeks, and months, but Data Privacy Day on January 28 is one that we here at BLS live every day of the year.

If this is the first time you’re hearing about it, Data Privacy Day is an international effort to “create awareness about the importance of:

  • respecting privacy,
  • safeguarding data and
  • enabling trust.”

These three phrases are central to everything we do at BLS—but don’t take my word for it! Instead, let’s hear from some of our staff members about what data privacy means in their day-to-day work lives.

I chatted with staff members from three key areas at the Bureau:

  • Collection — our field economists collect data from respondents.
  • Systems — our computer specialists protect the IT infrastructure where we keep the data.
  • Analysis — our economists analyze the data, prepare products, and explain the data to our customers.

Now, let’s meet the staff.

Richard Regotti

Richard Regotti

My name is Richard Regotti, Field Economist in the BLS Chicago Regional Office, Cleveland Area Office. I have proudly served the public in this position for 12 years. As a Field Economist I am responsible for collecting data and developing positive relationships and securing cooperation from survey respondents for the Producer Price Index and the International Price Indexes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jess Mitchell

Jess Mitchell

My name is Jess Mitchell and I have been an Information Security Specialist in the Bureau’s national office since 2013. I started with BLS in 1999. Currently, I am the Computer Security Incident Response Team Lead, so I, along with my team members, investigate, analyze and report on computer security incidents as well as the impact or potential impact of cyber threats and vulnerabilities to BLS systems and data.

 

 

 

 

 

Karen Kosanovich

Karen Kosanovich

My name is Karen Kosanovich, Economist, and I have spent the past 19 years working with unemployment data from the Current Population Survey, and 25 years total at BLS. I develop analyses, such as The Employment Situation, and talk to our customers about the data.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Question 1. One of our core BLS values is the confidentiality of data: All respondent data are completely confidential and used for statistical purposes only. How does this impact you in your daily work?

Richard: On a daily basis I am asking producers and service providers to voluntarily provide very sensitive company information. Even after identifying myself as a representative of our Federal Government, some respondents are not comfortable with agreeing to provide us their confidential information for use in our statistical output. By focusing on the mission of the BLS and the legal protections that are in place to safeguard survey data, I am able to function on the front line as a data collector.

Jess: This core value of data confidentiality helps me to focus on the importance of protecting the confidentiality of BLS data when my team members and I are investigating threats. The importance of BLS data underscores the importance of our daily work to keep BLS data and data respondent information confidential.

Karen: I don’t have access to information about specific people who respond to our survey. All personally identifying information is stripped away before the statistical information is given to an economist like me to analyze. For my colleagues and me, confidentiality means protecting our estimates from being distributed in advance of the official release of the unemployment rate at 8:30 a.m. on the day we publish our data.

Question 2. Does adherence to this core value create any challenges for you in your work? How have you overcome those challenges?

Richard: Adherence to complete confidentiality, supported by the fact that the data are used for statistical purposes only, presents no challenge to me; this core value is a selling point and something I make sure all potential survey participants are aware of prior to providing any data to the BLS.

Jess: Adherence to the core BLS value of data confidentiality does create a challenge when we need to engage our office in an incident or threat investigation; we must be very diligent not to share Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act (CIPSEA) information.

Karen: Our procedures for working with embargoed (prerelease) information are so ingrained in my work routine that I don’t notice any challenges from them. The people I work with all have the same responsibility and a strong commitment to public service, so it is easy for us to keep vigilant.

Question 3. If you could make a statement to the American people about why they should trust BLS with their information, what would that be?

Richard: BLS is not a compliance or regulatory agency in any way. We are only concerned with providing accurate, timely, relevant, and unbiased data that reports on the health and well-being of our economy. Your information contributes to the validity of BLS data.

Jess: The confidentiality of BLS data is always at the root of my office’s work, and I see the same focus on data privacy and confidentiality and diligence toward the safeguarding of CIPSEA data throughout the entire culture of BLS.

Karen: Although I don’t have names and personal details of specific unemployed people who respond to our survey, my colleagues and I are very mindful of the importance of representing the experience of all Americans when we produce our estimates. The data we publish are not just numbers, but tell the story of real people. It can be very stressful to be unemployed, and those who have been looking for work for a very long time face significant challenges in the labor market. We take our jobs, and our mission, very seriously.

And now the rules:

Of course, we don’t work in a vacuum. Like any other organization, we have rules that we live under.

BLS makes a pledge of confidentiality to its respondents that data collected are used for statistical purposes only. The pledge is covered by CIPSEA, which makes it a felony to disclose or release the information for either nonstatistical purposes (for example, regulatory or law-enforcement purposes) or to unauthorized persons. In addition, the Office of Management and Budget has Statistical Policy Directives (3 and 4) that govern BLS news releases to ensure they meet specific accuracy, timeliness, and accountability standards.

On January 28, and every day, we hope you will take steps to protect your own privacy and the privacy of others. Here at BLS we will continue to educate and raise awareness about respecting privacy and safeguarding data. It is core to our mission and central to our staff values. Without the trust these actions produce among the American people, we could not do our work in providing gold-standard data for and about America’s workers.

Thank you for your trust and happy Data Privacy Day!