Department of Labor Logo United States Department of Labor
Dot gov

The .gov means it's official.
Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you're on a federal government site.

Https

The site is secure.
The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

Tag Archives: Technology

How We Collect Data When People Don’t Answer the Phone

I was asked recently how the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics can collect data these days when no one answers the telephone. A legitimate question and one we grapple with all the time. I had two answers – one related to data collection methods and one related to sources of data. I will elaborate here about both.

Beige wall phone with rotary dial

But first, do you remember the days before caller ID, when everyone answered the phone? If you were at home, the rotary phone, permanently attached to the kitchen wall, always rang during dinner.

If you were in the office, the phone probably had a row of clear plastic buttons at the bottom that would light up and flash. In either case, who was on the other end of the phone was a mystery until you answered. In those days, your friendly BLS caller could easily get through to you and ask for information.

Vintage office phone with rows of buttons

Fast forward to today’s world of smart phones and other mobile devices. Nobody talks on the phone anymore. Many phone calls are nuisances. A call from BLS might show up as Unknown Number, U.S. Government, or U.S. Department of Labor on your caller ID, or identified as potential spam. With the spread of “spoofing,” many people do not answer calls from numbers they don’t recognize. How do we get around these issues?

Data Collection

At BLS, we consider data collection as much an art as a science. Sure, our staff needs to be well-versed in the information they are collecting. But they also need to be salespersons, able to convince busy people to spend a few minutes answering key questions. Part of that art is making a connection. There are old-fashioned ways that still work, such as sending a letter or showing up at the door. And there are more modern techniques, such as email and text. We are nothing if not persistent.

Our data-collection techniques have been called “High Touch, High Tech.” We start by building a relationship—the High Touch step. BLS has a wide range of information that people and businesses can use to help make informed decisions. We can help you access that information, and we love to see survey respondents use BLS data they helped us produce. In return, we ask for some information from you. There’s where High Tech comes in. We continue to add flexibility to our data-collection toolkit. You can provide information in person, on paper, or on the phone. You also can email information or an encrypted file. Or you can access our online portal anytime and anywhere to provide information or upload a data file. We need your information, and we want to make providing that information as easy as possible.

For example, this chart shows the number of employer self-reports that we’ve received through our online portal over the past several years. Internet data collection has really taken off.

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

Another data-collection strategy we use is asking businesses to allow us to get the information we need from their website. This might involve web scraping data or using an Application Programming Interface (API). We have had success showing businesses that we can get what we need from their website, often eliminating the need for them to compile data.

Alternative Data

Beyond these data-collection strategies, we are expanding efforts to get information from alternative sources, lessening our need to contact businesses and households. Some BLS programs, such as Local Area Unemployment Statistics, the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, and Productivity Studies, rely heavily on administrative data and information from other surveys. In these cases, there is little need to contact businesses or people directly.

Other BLS programs, such as the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the Employment Cost Index (ECI), need to capture timely information. But there are alternatives that can complement direct data collection. The CPI, for example, has produced an experimental price index for new vehicles based on a file of vehicle purchase transactions provided by J.D. Power. Using information from sources like that may eventually lessen the need to have BLS employees contact vehicle dealerships. The ECI found that it was easier to capture employer premiums for unemployment insurance from state tax records than to ask employers.

Alternative data come in many forms, from government records, data aggregators, scanners, crowdsourcing, corporate data files, and many more. BLS is investing heavily in alternative data-collection techniques and alternative data sources. The High Touch and High Tech approach we use every day in our data-collection operations helps us to maximize data quality and minimize respondent burden and cost.

The telephone may go the way of the dinosaur, but that’s not stopping us from using every tool at our disposal to continue to produce gold standard data to inform your decisions.

Number of transactions with BLS internet data collection
YearNumber of transactions

2004

105,145

2005

148,754

2006

219,923

2007

534,555

2008

972,605

2009

1,544,795

2010

1,909,410

2011

2,322,540

2012

2,769,694

2013

3,236,376

2014

3,288,665

2015

3,554,639

2016

4,013,415

2017

4,513,297

2018

4,685,414

2019

4,868,939

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.