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Tag Archives: Data visualization

BLS Data in More Than a Century of Pictures

BLS was established in 1884, and some of our programs date back nearly that far. We have more than a century of statistics on prices, employment, wages, productivity, and more. But even in those early days, we realized that pages full of numbers can be a little dull. We frequently use pictures to tell the stories behind those numbers and help readers see the important points more quickly. Let’s look at over a century of BLS price statistics, in five charts.

The first chart, which looks hand drawn, was originally presented as part of the Department of Labor’s exhibit at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in 1933, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair.

Poster for Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in 1933

The chart below depicts changes in the cost of living from 1913 to 1932, based on the BLS Consumer Price Index. Here we see market baskets (with legs) rising during World War I, then declining and holding steady during the roaring 1920s, and declining as the nation entered the Great Depression.

Chart showing changes in cost of living from 1913 to 1932, based on the Consumer Price Index

Source: What Are Labor Statistics For? A Series of Pictorial Charts, Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 599, published in 1933.

The next chart, again looking hand drawn – this time perhaps with a ruler – compares wholesale prices (what we now call the Producer Price Index) in the years leading up to the United States entering World War I and World War II. It comes from the first of two BLS bulletins on Wartime Prices. The increase in the wholesale price for all commodities was nearly twice as great in the earlier period, reflecting large differences in the price change for such commodities as fuel and chemicals.

Chart showing percent changes in wholesale prices for commodities in World War 1 and World War 2

Source: Wartime Prices, Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 749, published in 1944.

Now, let’s move forward about 20 years. BLS published a chart book in 1963 focusing on price changes over the prior decade. The chart book presented both consumer and wholesale prices for the nation, along with consumer price trends in the 12 largest U.S. cities. The chart shown here, perhaps produced on an early computer, tracks the change in prices for all consumer items, and separately for various categories. Prices for durable commodities, such as appliances and furniture, declined in the early part of the period and later rebounded, resulting in virtually no price change over the decade. In contrast, the price of services, such as shelter, transportation, and medical care, rose steadily throughout the period.

Chart showing changes in consumer prices, 1953 to 1962

Source: Prices: A Chartbook, 1953–62, Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 1351, published in 1963.

With advances in computer software, BLS expanded the use of charts to allow readers to visualize data trends. Such charts became prominent in the BLS flagship publication, the Monthly Labor Review. In an article from 1987, data from the BLS International Price Program track price changes for selected imports.

Chart showing changes in U.S. Import Price Indexes for machinery and transportation equipment and intermediate manufactures, 1982 to 1986

Source: “Import price declines in 1986 reflected reduced oil prices,” Monthly Labor Review, April 1987.

BLS ushered in the age of interactive charts in recent years, making chart packages available with most news releases. In the chart below, readers can track a decade of consumer price changes for all items, and then click on selected categories to compare trends. Want to compare price changes for food at home with food away from home? It’s just a couple of clicks away.

Chart showing 12-month changes in the Consumer Price Index, August 2001 to August 2021

Source: Charts related to the Consumer Price Index news release.

Our charts today are a lot more sophisticated than the hand-drawn charts of the early twentieth century. They may not have amusing cartoon characters like the CPI market basket with legs, but they have interactive features that let you dig into more details about the data or choose the data you want to see. We also have several publications that focus on the visual display of data. Check out The Economics Daily and Spotlight on Statistics!

Meet Our New Science and Technology Fellow at BLS

Samantha Tyner
Samantha Tyner

Seeing that we are the U.S. Bureau of LABOR Statistics, we go the extra mile to attract the highest quality labor to accomplish our mission. This includes over 2,000 permanent staff scattered around the country. We also partner with state employees on several BLS programs, and we work with contractors and others to get the job done. Further, we look for opportunities to bring in specialized talent to help with some projects, such as the Civic Digital Fellows who joined us this past summer. Today I want to recognize the first-ever Science and Technology Policy Fellow to spend time at BLS — Samantha Tyner.

The Science & Technology Policy Fellowship is a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). To understand this program in a nutshell, let me quote directly from their website:

“AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) provide opportunities to outstanding scientists and engineers to learn first-hand about policymaking and contribute their knowledge and analytical skills in the policy realm. Fellows serve yearlong assignments in the federal government and represent a broad range of backgrounds, disciplines, and career stages. Each year, STPF adds to a growing corps over 3,000 strong of policy-savvy leaders working across academia, government, nonprofits, and industry to serve the nation and citizens around the world.”

This is the first year BLS has worked with AAAS to bring on a Science and Technology Fellow. We are so fortunate that Samantha (Sam) Tyner started in September and will be with us over the next year. Sam, one of about 200 fellows in the current class, earned her Ph.D. in statistics from Iowa State University and was most recently a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence. She is working in the BLS Office of Survey Methods Research (OSMR), focusing on interactive data visualization, text mining, and effective communications to wider audiences.

Let’s find out a little bit about Sam and her fellowship. I asked her what drew her to the federal government. She said she knew pretty early on in graduate school that she didn’t want to go the traditional professor route. She also wasn’t particularly interested in working in one of those internet giants, where the statistics are interesting but the focus is on getting people to click more. She wanted to find ways to use her statistical skills to solve real world problems, and government seemed like a good place for that.

Her first impressions of BLS have been positive. “It’s like hanging out with a bunch of professors, but the staff in OSMR is much more laid back.” One of her current projects involves text mining of BLS mentions on Twitter — what are people saying about us. We’ll use this research to learn how we can better serve our customers.

Another project involves BLS data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. There is so much data each quarter, down to the county level. She is developing an R Shiny app that will graph these data and allow users to do quick searches. I got to see a quick demo — impressive work after only 2 months on the job.

She is an expert in data visualization, so I asked her what she thinks of some of the charts that BLS produces. I think she was a bit reluctant to criticize, but the comment “you do have a lot of bar charts” was very telling. She describes her goal as to “take a sad chart and make it better.” We certainly welcome her guidance and look forward to producing fewer sad charts in the future.

Beyond all the work Sam is doing at BLS, she also provides posts on the AAAS blog, focusing on some practical aspects of her research. A recent blog taps into her expertise on data visualization. She writes about a problem that can sometimes occur when charts provide too much information. We hope we are not making this mistake with BLS charts.

I’m glad that Samantha has gotten a good start to her Fellowship. We are planning to take full advantage of her research and skills to improve BLS products. I asked her what will make this year a success. Her response — a job offer. Maybe at BLS, or at one of many government agencies where she can use her skills. She will be an asset anywhere she goes.

Modernizing BLS News Releases for the Next Generation

At BLS we are always trying to refine our products to serve our customers better. Over the years, we have updated several of our publications to be more web-friendly and include more interactive features. One major exception has been news releases. In the past few years we have conducted a great deal of outreach and investigation with our news release readers to understand what would make our releases easier to digest and provide greater context to the data. The outcome of this research is the two news release prototypes we’re presenting.

On our beta site, you can find prototypes for the Consumer Price Index and The Employment Situation news releases. We incorporated interactive charts, downloadable excel tables, and a redesigned technical note (now called “About this release”).

We’d love to hear what you think! Please either drop a comment here, or on our beta site, so we can better refine these prototypes for future news releases.

Building a Business? Start Here

You have an idea.

It’s time to get serious about it.

Entrepreneurial drive got you to this point, but now it’s time to chart a plan. For that you need a reliable overview of the factors that can lead to a flourishing business — or work against it.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Business Builder application is designed to provide small business owners with key data to give them a clear-eyed view of their potential market. This data-mapping tool combines data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Economic Census, and County Business Patterns, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

For version 2.6 of the tool, released this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has collaborated with the Census Bureau to include data from our Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW). QCEW is based on quarterly mandatory reports to the Unemployment Insurance systems in each state, covering more than 95 percent of the jobs in the U.S. economy. It is the most complete and current source of data on employment and wages at a detailed geographic and industry level.

To help illustrate why this tool is so useful, and why the data from the QCEW broadens that usefulness, I’ll make up an example.

Ever since you can remember, your grandmother, who was born and raised just outside of Naples, has fed you a type of pizza full of unusual flavors that has never been equaled in all your travels. As you grew and came into your own as a cook, she entrusted you with her secret knowledge, like a magician passing along her repertoire to a favored protégé.

Ever since, you’ve dreamed of sharing the pleasures of that delicacy with the world, and you’re going to start with a pizzeria somewhere near your home in Olympia, Washington. You may ask yourself: What exactly does the restaurant market look like in Olympia? Who are my potential customers? What kind of wages do they earn?

The Census Business Builder is a good place to start.

Census Business Builder home screen

Here, you can enter the type of establishment you’d like to research, as well as the area where you intend to do business. You find that data are not available for Olympia, but knowing that Olympia is the county seat, you are able to search in Thurston County.

The resulting map provides data on income, education, wages, and perhaps most importantly for you, the number of similar establishments in the area – also known as your competition.

Map of Thurston County, Washington, showing Census Business Builder search results

With the new QCEW data, another crucial batch of information is at your fingertips: more up-to-date establishment counts, employment numbers, and wages. It also provides an important metric known as the location quotient. This measure lets you compare an industry’s employment concentration or wages in your search area with the country as a whole. Will you be able to hire enough staff? What might you need to pay them if you want the best in the business?

Map of Thurston County, Washington, showing Census Business Builder search results with QCEW location quotient

The possibilities advance from this example as far as your entrepreneurial mind wants to take them. It is you, after all, who will transform these numbers into the real-world business that fulfills your vision. Our job as public servants is to give you the most relevant tools to realize that transformation. We’re grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with the Census Bureau to bring you this vital information in this user-friendly format.

The Census Business Builder is updated twice per year using feedback that comes from customers and stakeholders, including small business owners, trade associations and other government agencies. The update also adds QCEW data into the Regional Analyst version of the tool, which is designed for chambers of commerce and regional planning staff who need a broad portrait of the people and businesses in their area. The December release, for example, will add more QCEW features to the Regional Analyst version.

BLS publishes data from the QCEW program every quarter in the County Employment and Wages news release. QCEW data are available through our Open Data Access and the QCEW Databases.

Improved Mapping Tool for Local Area Unemployment Statistics

We publish thousands of unemployment rates each month for states, metro areas, and counties. That can make them hard to follow, but we just upgraded our mapping tool to make it easy. Instead of wading through all those numbers, just check out the latest maps for what you need. We have rebuilt the tool using a more modern and versatile mapping technology. That will make it easier to update with future geographic changes. We have improved several features of the tool:

  • We have added tooltips to help you identify each area and its data. Just hover over an area on the map to see its information.
  • In the tab for state data that are not seasonally adjusted, you can choose a state and pull up a map of that state’s county data for the same period.
  • The metro area tab has returned and reflects the areas currently used by the Local Area Unemployment Statistics program.
  • You can choose the dates, states, areas, and measures you want to see.
  • You can select the key data ranges to highlight all areas in the same group. (Click or press the range a second time to deselect.)
  • The map space is larger and framed.
  • Use the arrow in the lower right corner of the map space to print the map image or export it to .PNG, .JPEG, and .SVG formats.

Missouri map showing counties and their unemployment rates

We hope these improved maps make finding data for your state and local area easier. Let us know what you think.